restricted access The Gothic in Cristina García’s The Agüero Sisters
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The Gothic in Cristina García’s The Agüero Sisters

The American Gothic tradition includes literature in the United States that exhibits fantastic or otherworldly qualities. More often than not, however, when these traits appear in US Latina/o fiction, the literary market categorizes it as magical realism.1 Latin American fiction of the 1960s, including that written by Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa, popularized magical realism. Authors associated with “The Boom,” as it was called due to the explosion of Latin American literature of this era, incorporated supernatural elements and postmodern time in their work and made magical realism synonymous with Latin American fiction. Publishers and critics attempted to associate US Latina/o fiction with Boom literature in order to secure entrance and acceptance for US Latina/o literature in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, as Karen Christian notes, “in an attempt to identify the ‘essence’ of US Latina/o fiction, critics may fail to note the differences in the ways Boom aesthetics are deployed, or even the fact that by no means all Latina/o writing has a magical realist bent” (128). Magical realism implies an exoticism within the text as readers and other characters within the tale accept moments that evoke the marvelous or supernatural as part of the characters’ cultural belief systems. For example, Cristina García’s first novel, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), presents ghosts as a natural part of the characters’ worlds. On the other hand, García’s second novel, The Agüero Sisters (1997), contains characters who experience magical events that produce disbelief, fear, and distress. In addition to the magical realism in García’s texts, we must also pay attention to the Gothic, the genre dedicated to fear.

Gothic literature often relies on an element of fear or terror associated with uncanny repetition or a return of the repressed. In The Agüero Sisters, Constancia Agüero wakes one morning to see her murdered mother’s face in the mirror instead of her own. Given that she has spent her life repressing the truth about her mother’s death, Constancia is horrified. Convinced she is not dreaming or hallucinating, she spends the rest of the novel worried that she will disappear completely. García’s novel also alludes to classic British and American gothic tales. For instance, Reina Agüero, who [End Page 117] accepts strange events more easily than her sister Constancia does, exhibits many parallels to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818): her body must be repaired using skin grafts from a variety of people alive and dead, and throughout the novel, she longs for a maternal relationship. The characterization of the murdered mother, Blanca, resembles that of the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892). Examples include Blanca’s thwarted desire for a career and a postpartum depression that her husband, Ignacio, treats with electric-shock therapy. Finally, The Agüero Sisters’ femicidal plot links it to the central concerns of contemporary female Gothic tales.2 García incorporates the Gothic into her story by evoking fear, the uncanny, and these gothic tales. Magical realist moments exist in this text, but identifying the gothic modes alongside them attends to the fluid and transcultural nature of The Agüero Sisters. Reading this text as an amalgam of magical realism and the Gothic also expands the identification and discussion of American gothic texts, especially when engaging multi-ethnic literature in the US.

To introduce The Agüero Sisters as part of an American gothic literary tradition, it is necessary to clarify the nuanced definitions of the Gothic and magical realism. The term magical realism originated in Germany to classify an art form that lay somewhere between expressionism and realism. Writers in Latin America and the Caribbean applied the term to evoke the essentially magical within American culture.3 Since then, the generic classification produces the expectation that strange things will occur, but that these are somehow natural to the characters and/or the community to which the novel pertains. Contemporary theorists of magical realism situate it within a legacy of Romanticism and the...