The Mixquiahuala Letters
Written by Ana Castillo
Publication: 1986, Bilingual Press
[Republished by Doubleday/Anchor Books in 1992]
Reviewed by Thelma T. Reyna
BOOK REVIEW #8 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS
ANA CASTILLO is one of those rare authors who makes a name for herself across genres. She has published well-received poetry, short stories, essays, novels, a play, a children’s book, and a memoir. She defies categorization primarily because of the high quality of her work, with admirers in each genre claiming her for their category above all others.
But the truth is, despite poetry being her first love—with her first publication being a collection of her poems in 1977—Castillo’s fame has been cemented more by her novels than by any other work she has done. She was asked by an interviewer once how she saw herself: “As a fiction writer who also writes poems? A novelist or a short story writer?…an essayist who writes plays?” She replied simply: “Writer.” Yet it was her first novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, which catapulted her onto the literary radar. It received the prestigious American Book Award in 1987 and set Castillo on her path to fame.
The book is an epistolary novel (one told through letters), with the letters all written by one of its two protagonists. The letter-writer, Teresa, is a poet, an American Latina of Mayan descent, a young woman accustomed to discrimination based on her dark skin, slanted eyes, and humble roots. The recipient of her letters is Alicia, a pale, evanescent woman of mixed heritage, with Spanish gypsy blood in her, but basically considered an Anglo from a privileged background. Alicia is an artist who loses herself in her watercolors, other artwork, numerous doomed love affairs, and long stretches of silence and withdrawal in which she sometimes appears disembodied.
Plot and Characters
The two women are 20 years old when they meet in Mexico City in a summer cultural study program sponsored by an American group. The six women in the program are basically “California blonds and eastern WASP’s, instructors who didn’t speak Spanish” (p. 24), so Teresa—with her “Indian marked face, fluent use of the language, undeniably Spanish name” (p. 25)—soon absconds and chooses to absorb and learn Mexico on her own. Alicia, immediately attracted to Teresa’s earthiness, goes with her. The two vagabonds, low on cash but high on living life on their own terms, traverse Mexico, off the proverbial beaten path, to savor the rusticity and authenticity of the nation’s past and its unpredictable present.
Their encounters in that summer of wanderlust might prick the sensibilities of conservative readers, especially mothers, as the two young women are verbally and physically accosted, sexually harassed, almost raped, robbed, and humiliated. Yet Teresa and Alicia manage to hang on to their dignity, starting with a memorable weekend in Mixquiahuala, an ancient village of Toltec ruins, no street lighting, lamb barbecues, and pushy men who promise marriage in exchange for sex. The young women live meagerly among peasants and native women washing clothes in streams, fishermen battling elements, and a motley crew of men indistinguishable one from the other for their ingrained belief in female inferiority. Yet the elemental aspect of life in untouched nature, the kindness and generosity of strangers, the fluidity of time, the solitude and introspection that their journeying evokes, feed the women’s spirits sufficiently to keep them trekking despite hardships.
Teresa and Alicia return to their colleges and turbulent lives after that first summer, Teresa facing a disastrous marriage and Alicia a tormented love affair. Throughout the decade spanned by The Mixquiahuala Letters, the women stay in contact with one another as they battle societal expectations they cannot accept and struggle to find a balance between what’s in their hearts and what the world dictates they must be. Teresa describes it thus:
“I was no longer prepared to face a mundane life of need and resentment, accept monogamous commitments and honor patriarchal traditions, and wanted to be rid of the husband’s guiding hand, holidays with family and in-laws, led by a contradicting God, society, road and street signs, and, most of all, my poverty.” (pp. 28-29)
The novel is not linear. Though the letters are presented in a semblance of chronology, from 1-40, they swoop in and out of time, taking the women from Mexico to Chicago to California and New York, and back to all these places again, from lover to lover, from crisis to crisis, with highs and lows. The women travel to Mexico again a year after their first trek, with Mexico seemingly their touchstone as to who they really are, and how they are fully authentic with one another only in that ancient land, though Mexico is a “country where relationships were never clear and straightforward but a tangle of contradictions and hypocrisies.” (p. 60) Ultimately, these contradictions color these women’s friendship as well.
The women are constant, though antithetical to one another. They complement one another: the yin and yang, strength and frailty, with Teresa strong, defiant, coarse, courageous; and Alicia “mystical….the ocean, immense and horizontal, your hair the tide that came in to meet the shore,” as Teresa described her. (p. 27) It is a friendship deeper than marriage, stronger than blood, yet more painful than star-crossed lovers. Teresa and Alicia are an odd couple embodying the dynamic tension that prevails, ironically, even in a relationship of equals.
Themes and Historical Significance of the Book
The American feminist movement was still toddling when this book was published in 1986. Though readers today, especially Latinas, might feel that the themes of male oppression and suffocating Mexican traditions are passé, we must keep two things in mind: (1) oppression still exists, and (2) it’s a matter of degree. When Castillo’s book emerged, the issues the author railed against were more immediate and raw. Still, we are sometimes amazed at the relevance today of Castillo’s comments in her book, such as:
“When a woman entered the threshold of intimacy with a man [marriage], she left the companions of her sex without looking back. Her needs had to be sustained by him. If not, she was to keep her emptiness to herself.” (p. 35)
“Love…describes in one syllable all the humiliation that one is born to and pressed upon to surrender to a man.” (p. 117)
“I had left [my husband] because I thought I was fighting a society in which men and women entangled their relationships with untruths.” (p. 133)
Throughout the novel, Teresa and Alicia, but especially Teresa, fight to maintain their humanity, their uniqueness as women, apart from men in their lives. Teresa aborts her baby rather than be under the thumb of her oppressive lover and risk never being rid of him. Alicia’s resistance to the parasitic clinging of another lover ends with his suicide. Both women are traumatized by these events, but the episodes were inevitable in the toxic ambience of their relationships. When this book was published, Castillo was hailed as a feminist, and her book continues to be read in women’s studies classes throughout the U.S.
Castillo’s Inspiration and Tribute to “the Master”
The book was inspired by the brilliant Argentinian author, Julio Cortázar, who wrote the 1963 “interactive novel” Rayuela (Hopscotch), an experimental 500+ page masterpiece whose chapters and sections can be read in different sequences for different effects and interpretations. Cortázar’s book was a tour de force, with its integration of stream of consciousness, philosophy, music, art, politics, and existential threads questioning “the conundrum of consciousness,” as one reviewer has called it. Cortázar’s cast of characters spanned two continents, with most of the interactions set in Paris and Buenos Aires. It is often considered an intellectually heavy, pioneering novel.
Castillo’s novel, on the other hand, is more modest in scope. It centers primarily on the two women, and their “conundrum” is one of sexual/gender identity amidst misogyny and social barriers. Teresa and Alicia are predictable in the traps they fall into: pushing back against machismo, yet succumbing again and again to the same brand of male—entitled, arrogant, dismissive toward women. One wonders when each woman will learn from past errors and make better choices. But perhaps Castillo’s message in 1986 was that there are no men available outside this chauvinistic mold.
At times, Castillo’s epistolary structure is too contrived, too stilted to be believable, and some letters, such as Letter 30, interminably recounts the meeting between Alicia and her last lover, something which the letter’s recipient (Alicia) of course knew already. Serving as the driver of the novel’s plot, the letters must, of course, provide details and conversations. Sometimes this seems authentic (e.g., Letter 39), primarily when Teresa, the letter-writer, focuses on her own events rather than recounting what Alicia had experienced.
Like Hopscotch, Castillo’s novel can be read as the author organized the chapters, or the reader chooses to sequence the chapters, with the author’s suggestions. Another similarity in the two works is the vivid language. Castillo’s birth as a poet is clear in her descriptions, be they images of feelings, conflicts, events, or landscape. Her language is often powerful, as in Teresa’s description of her abortion: “I erupted, a volcano of hot wine, soft membrane, tissue, undefined nerves, sightless eyes, a miniscule, pounding heart, sightless flesh, all sucked out in torn, mutilated pieces. How long does death take? My drugged head was heavy and oblivious to time.” (p. 114) Some of the letters are actually poems.
Born in Chicago in 1953, Ana Castillo continues to be an active, highly influential writer. She lives in New Mexico after having resided in California, New York, and other states. She has published 7 novels, including the famed So Far From God (1993), and The Guardians (2007); a short story collection, Loverboys (1996); 6 volumes of poetry, including Women Are Not Roses (1984); a play, “Psst…I Have Something to Tell You, Mi Amor”; and a seminal nonfiction work, Massacre of the Dreamers (1994), which she created in lieu of a dissertation for her Ph.D. degree.
Of her future, Castillo said in an interview in 2008: “Our generation [the Baby Boomers] fought the establishment and saw us through extraordinary times. We most assuredly won’t simply go off into the good night without a whimper….So, as a writer, I continue to portray unprecedented literary characters, independent, fiery Latinas….I am also able to write cross-generationally.”
It is precisely these attributes that maintain Ana Castillo in the top tier of American authors today and will hopefully continue to do so for many more generations. Visit her website at www.anacastillo.com .
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009), which has won four national awards. Her books have collectively won 20 national book awards. She has written 6 books– a short story collection, 2 poetry chapbooks, and 3 full-length poetry collections– and has edited 3 anthologies: as Poet Laureate in Altadena, CA in 2014-2016, she edited the Altadena Poetry Review Anthology in 2015 and 2016. Then in 2020, Thelma edited a ground-breaking anthology, When the Virus Came Calling: COVID-19 Strikes America. Dr. Reyna has served as an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles, and at California Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is owner/Publisher of Golden Foothills Press Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com. This review was originally ppublished on March3, 2013.