Cinco Hermanitas:Myth and Sisterhood in Guadalupe García McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas
This article examines the 2012 young adult novel, Summer of the Mariposas, by Chicana writer Guadalupe García McCall, a leading voice in Chicana and Latina children’s and young adult literature. I argue that the novel be read as a Chicana feminist text in its encouragement of strong bonds of Chicana sisterhood (“las cinco hermanitas”) specifically through a rejection and rewriting of the Mexican folkloric myth of La Llorona.
I grew up in a very small town, surrounded by women … 5 sisters, many tias, many comadres of my mother. So being female, and keeping a sister-hood around me for moral and emotional support played a big role in my life. The bond of sisters is special and critical for women to cultivate.—Guadalupe García McCall, “Your work”
In an e-mail exchange with the Chicana young adult novelist, Guadalupe García McCall, the writer expressed the positive influence that strong relationships between women, especially sisters, have played in her writing life. Not surprisingly, then, bonds of sisterhood and mother-daughter relationships take center stage in her most recent novel, Summer of the Mariposas (2012), which describes one summer in the life of a young Chicana named Odilia and her four younger sisters, who find a dead man floating in their favorite swimming hole in Eagle Pass, Texas. In a text that has been described by the writer as a contemporary Chicana revision of The Odyssey (“Your work” and “Q & A”), the novel delves into an exciting, chaotic story of the five sisters’ attempts to return the dead man to his family in México. Indeed, for García McCall, Summer of the Mariposas is a much needed gesture to insert her very readers, young Chicanas and Latinas, into a world of adventure and knowledge that may be closed off to them because of static, rigid gender norms1. Stealing their estranged father’s old car without so much as a note to their newly single mother, Rosalinda, the sisters embark on a road trip across the Mexican border, and along the way, they encounter Mexican mythical characters such as La Llorona, El Nagual, El Chupacabras, La Lechuza, and La Virgen de Guadalupe2; it is these strange occurrences that provide the bulk of the plot. With a comic twist as well, the sisters find themselves reported missing by their mother, thereby having to dodge the media attention their disappearance has caused. In addition to the folk characters, the novel also weaves popular Mexican rhymes from the well-known game, lotería, which function as foreshadowing of plot details to come.
While a recent addition to the field of young adult literature, García McCall’s works are part of a well-established tradition of Chicana and [End Page 96] other Latina writers and poets who have published texts for younger audiences. Writers such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Judith Ortiz Cofer, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Álvarez, and Ana Castillo have published children’s and young adult texts3, demonstrating their efforts to reach a younger readership, often with the same aim of their adult writings, namely to use literature as a way to probe issues such as social inequality, the family, sexuality, and immigration, to name only a few. I would add Guadalupe García McCall’s work, especially Summer of the Mariposas, to this body of literature that seeks to use fiction as a tool for social learning that targets children and young adults as recipients of cultural knowledge.
I am most interested in the ways in which the novel challenges young Chicanitas to reject the patriarchal myth and folktale of the legendary “bad” woman and mother, epitomized by La Llorona. Through the representation of sisterhood—las cinco hermanitas4—the novel encourages a reinterpretation of the Llorona myth that may potentially damage relationships between female family members because of the ways the traditional interpretation has suggested an inherent distrust in women. According to Mexican lore, a woman drowns her children, in some versions as an act of revenge for her lover’s abandonment; as penance for this crime of infanticide, La Llorona wails and weeps, searching for her drowned children near bodies of water. The tale serves as a warning to children to behave and to avoid bodies of water, or La Llorona may steal them away; in versions such as this, La Llorona is a figure to abhor and to dread, for she symbolizes the long-held myth of mothers as potentially “crazy,” “mad,” and dangerous. Although many versions of this tale exist, some in which La Llorona does not actually kill her children, the narrative of the weeping woman as murderous mother remains the most consistent storyline.5 The writer herself has spoken of the need to rework these stories because of the dangers they pose in their traditional renditions: “When I started writing Summer of the Mariposas, I wanted to tell a fun female story … I wanted young girls to believe in themselves and trust that a female is just as equipped to take care of herself and her loved ones as her male counterpart. That they are lacking nothing—that all young ladies have the courage to take life by force and the wisdom to attain their goals” (“Q & A”).
Clearly, García McCall recognizes the influence that young adult fiction may have over readers, especially Chicanas and other Latinas. And it is precisely this function, that is, the ways that literature may encourage female empowerment and autonomy among Chicana sisters, which I seek to examine in this article. I argue that the novel be read [End Page 97] as a Chicana feminist text in its encouragement of strong bonds of Chicana sisterhood specifically through a rejection and rewriting of the childhood folkloric myth of La Llorona, that depicts women and girls as untrustworthy and “bad” if they fail to abide by prescribed gender codes. As the sisters learn in their odyssey, it is only by protecting each other and uniting as sisters that they may return home to their newly single mother. The sisters only survive the dangers of a transborder trek by “sticking together” and collectively questioning the patriarchal motivations behind these folktales, enabling them to use this newly formed knowledge to create empowered, thriving lives with each other and their mother. “Folklore … acts as a kind of cultural currency through which ideas are exchanged and reinforced within a specific group” (101), explains Domino Renee Pérez in her scholarly work on La Llorona, and as such, the sisters (and subsequently all Chicanas) must negotiate the gendered implications of reading La Llorona as inherently destructive and the root of evil. Along with encouraging sisterhood through a revision of this myth, the novel also challenges the racist and sexist myth of the “dysfunctional” single-parent household, thus combining a Chicana feminist critique of folktales along with a critical examination of social structures that depict single, Latina mothers as “unfit.”
Despite a number of young adult and children’s texts by Chicana writers, however, few scholars have paid critical attention to these works, instead primarily studying the “adult” literature for which these writers have become most known (López and Serrato 216, Vásquez 64). This article contributes to the relatively small body of literary scholarship on Chicana/Latina children’s and young adult writing. Studying lesser-known children’s texts is a worthwhile endeavor, considering that a great number of these Chicana writers have sought to “expand the reach of their critical projects to include an audience still in the midst of its intellectual and social formation” (Serrato 133). Those few scholars who have identified the lesser-known children’s and young adult texts have largely focused on Anzaldúa’s Friends from the Other Side / Amigos del Otro Lado and Prietita and the Ghost Woman / Prietita y La Llorona, which is not surprising, given the publication of Ana Louise Keating’s edited volumes on Anzaldúa’s work published in the years after the writer/scholar’s untimely death in 2004, which no doubt has prompted a resurgence in scholarship.6 Yet, we also cannot underestimate the influence Anzaldúa’s children’s fiction has had on Chicana writers such as García McCall, who, like Anzaldúa in Prietita and the Ghost Woman / Prietita y [End Page 98] La Llorona, takes aim at negative depictions of the weeping woman as uncontrollable child murderer. Anzaldúa wrote fictional works aimed at children to instill learning and social consciousness that they could then develop and refine in adulthood: “I want to encourage children to look beneath the surface of what things seem to be in order to discover the truths that may be hidden” (qtd. in Rebolledo 283). Significantly, Anzaldúa’s description of this function of children’s writings may also relate to the development of critical thinking skills to tackle racism and sexism in life, as well as literature. Given that children are often the intended recipients of this tale, García McCall’s novel attempts to “set the record straight,” so to speak, raising doubt and critical questioning of a tale that renders a Chicana mother, and potentially all mothers, as transgressive figures who must be punished for straying outside of gendered expectations of womanhood and motherhood.7
Women Writers of Color and Children’s Literature
A major theme this article addresses is the need to revise long-standing myths that carry loaded messages to children regarding gender and “proper” behavior. Beyond that, the novel I examine holds significance for its insistence on empowered female relationships. As the novel suggests, the stories of young Latinas matter, and this reminder, namely that the lives and experiences of young Latinas must be given critical attention, is particularly resonant at a time when the humanity of people of color is under attack. By presenting us a story of complex, adventure-seeking young girls, García McCall’s novel challenges cultural, racial, and gendered norms that stunt young girls’ aspirations and dreams. And as young girls of color who may also be subjected to the sexist, racist stereotype of the “hot” Latina, the question remains: how can we create a world where young Latinas will be valued as fully autonomous human beings, not on whether their posteriors resemble Jennifer Lopez’s? How will they respond if one day they are called the racist epithet of “illegal alien” merely because they possess brown skin and Mexican surnames?
Such questions, namely how to teach our younger generations the importance of asking questions and thinking critically with regard to positive representations of identity, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, and sexuality, for example, are addressed by children’s and young adult literature by women writers of color. This is not an insignificant feat, given that historically, most children’s and young adult characters [End Page 99] have not been people of color (Johnson 213). Thus, as scholars have noted, part of teaching our children critical tools to resist racism and sexism, is to address the very real issue of (in)visibility in the texts they read. As a child and young adult, I was a devoted fan of the Sweet Valley Twins and Sweet Valley High book series, and looking back many years later, I wonder why I never questioned the pervasive whiteness of the books, why I never demanded that characters reflect my culture and experiences. Simply put, I was taught not to expect to see myself in the literature; fiction was clearly the domain of middle-class whites. As Sandra Hughes-Hassell confirms, “we cannot overestimate the power of seeing (or not seeing) oneself in literature” (214). This lack of visibility for children of color has potentially damaging consequences: “… self-image in children is shaped in some degree by exposure to images found in written texts, illustrations, and films. Moreover, it is clear that children, if they are to develop a positive self-image, need to ‘see’ themselves or their images in texts. Books, therefore, can serve to reinforce or counter negative notions of self-image in children of color” (Hurley 221).
In response to this literary invisibility, women writers of color have turned to children’s and young adult writing to invoke critical consciousness at a young age. García McCall, in fact, admits that the impetus to draft Summer of the Mariposas came as a result of a young woman’s lament when the author assigned The Odyssey in her class: “when one of my female students made the comment that all the books we read in class (we were studying Homer’s Odyssey) were about men—men having adventures, men defeating monsters, and men becoming heroes. This really upset my female students, and on her way out of my classroom, that same young lady told her friend, ‘It’s not fair. We need our own Odyssey!’” (“Q & A”). García McCall’s occupation as a schoolteacher places her in contact with her intended audience of growing children who are learning dominant social messages. Her young student’s budding feminist critique, however, also powerfully showcases the ways in which the classroom may function as a microcosm of the dominant social structure or as an empowering space for young students of color to reject hegemonic narratives. Her decision to rewrite The Odyssey as a novel of Chicana solidarity and sisterly empowerment, thus, may be read as a Chicana feminist response to the course material that she, as a teacher, is expected to assign to her students. García McCall was able to use this experience as a teaching lesson with a potentially positive outcome, supporting scholar Carmen Medina’s assertion that “children’s [End Page 100] literature written by and about Latinas/os in the United States provides a space to explore complex aspects of Latina/o identity” (199).
For women writers of color especially, the task of rewriting well-known legends, stories, and myths is of particular significance. García McCall’s recollection of her student’s disappointment with malecentered narratives and the writer’s response to this critique affirms the ways in which literature may reinforce or reject dominant power structures.8 In her rewriting not only of a classic male-inscribed myth but of her own Mexican culture’s vilification of a female folkloric figure, La Llorona, García McCall’s writing, then, functions as “counter-storytelling,” defined as “a method of telling the stories of those people whose experiences are not often told” (Hughes-Hassell 214). Speaking of the Mexican folk tradition of corridos or ballads, María Herrera-Sobek argues that this genre, and by extension, most folklore, is male-dominant and positions women “from a patriarchal perspective” that limits their representation to simplistic binaries of good/bad (The Mexican Corrido xviii). Within this tradition, then, women’s stories are largely told by men. In this light, of course, Summer of the Mariposas follows in the footsteps of Anzaldúa’s children’s text, Prietita and the Ghost Woman / Prietita y La Llorona, which “transforms the scary figure” of La Llorona” (Rebolledo 282). As Edith M. Vásquez notes of Anzaldúa’s use of La Llorona, “this recuperation of the weeping woman represents a material intervention into colonial, patriarchal, and child domination ideologies” (66). García McCall’s novel thus fits within the feminist tradition of Chicana writing that has taken issue with negative and rather limiting depictions of La Llorona.9
Solidarity and Sisterhood in Summer of the Mariposas
“Remember the rule of the five little sisters—cinco hermanitas, together forever, no matter what!”—García McCall, Summer of the Mariposas 11
Summer of the Mariposas engages with multiple elements of Mexican folk culture, demonstrating early on the writer’s critique of how seemingly harmless games such as lotería, a Mexican game similar to bingo, and folktales reinforce traditional, harmful gender roles. Each chapter in the novel begins with a popular rhyme that typically accompanies the calling of a lotería card, and as the eldest sister Odilia explains, in her family it was their father who was the caller (cantor) of the cards (2). [End Page 101] While the lotería rhymes and corresponding card foreshadow some of the obstacles and events that the sisters will face in the proceeding pages, this employment of a well-known Mexican game also holds more symbolic and thematic significance. That each chapter begins with the cantor’s rhyme symbolizes their function as a mode of patriarchal storytelling that the cinco hermanitas must resist in their own reinterpretations of folkloric stories. In her insightful analysis of Latina/o children’s songs and games, María Herrera-Sobek maintains that these outwardly “simple” childhood activities, in fact, “serve as an ideological instrument of socialization used by patriarchal institutions to reproduce the status quo” (“Danger!” 82). Essentially, las cinco hermanitas must learn to write and tell their own stories of sisterly solidarity and empowerment by refuting the father’s language and his role as “head” of the household, a position he has relinquished by his abandonment of the family the very summer in which the sisters embark on their collective journey. This rewriting of the rhymes, combined with the sisters’ reimagining of La Llorona, provides the means to build a united sisterhood of Chicana solidarity. The sisters must especially learn not to break their cardinal rule of “together forever, no matter what,” and this self-ascribed rule becomes a constant refrain throughout the narrative to remind them of the importance of their sisterly bond.10
The novel begins with the five sisters’—Odilia, Juanita, identical twins Velia and Delia, and the youngest, Pita—discovery of a dead man’s floating body in their favorite swimming hole in the Texas border town of Eagle Pass.11 Rather than fear the sight of a dead man, who most likely drowned in his attempt to migrate into the United States, the sisters instead feel morally compelled to return the man to his family in El Sacrificio, Coahuila, just across the border, in the very town where their paternal grandmother lives, a woman they have rarely seen because of their father’s failure to establish a familial connection between his daughters and their grandmother. As young girls whose own pain of their father’s recent abandonment is still raw, the decision to return the man is drawn from their attempts to make sense of their fatherlessness. While searching around the riverbed for more clues of the man’s identity, it is the eldest sister, Odilia, who discovers La Llorona. More curious than afraid of the weeping woman who is searching for her children near the riverbank, Odilia listens to the woman’s tale of heartache and loss: “I know what they say,” she admitted. “I’ve heard the stories many times throughout the centuries. But they are mistaken. I did not drown my chiquitos” (49). As a young girl [End Page 102] who has been exposed to one side of the narrative, namely that La Llorona’s wails are a penance due to her crime of infanticide, Odilia is confronted with La Llorona’s words, her side of a story of which she has never been able to tell on her own terms. La Llorona’s possession of speech, indeed, the novel’s attempt to recuperate her voice so that she may tell the real story is “transformative,” according to Tey Diana Rebolledo, given that most traditional versions leave her voiceless (282). In an interview with Rebolledo, Anzaldúa acknowledged the need to construct La Llorona as a speaking figure: “To me [La Llorona] was the central figure in Mexican mythology which empowered me to yell out, to scream out, to speak out, to break out of silence. To me she’s very important” (282). Although in Anzaldúa’s text La Llorona is more of a benevolent presence rather than a fully speaking figure, here La Llorona speaks as a way to model to Odilia the need to possess language to refute patriarchy. Odilia is left with the charge of questioning the narrative she has been told her whole life, a version that she learns is not only false, according to La Llorona’s explanation, but one that positions all mothers as culpable for any harm that falls on their children, even in accidental cases. Odilia thus learns that women’s stories are silenced and revised to fit within a system of patriarchy.
Moreover, it is La Llorona who instills Odilia with the courage necessary to return the dead man to his rightful home and family. According to La Llorona’s wisdom, the sisters must trek across the border to return the dead man, which, she explains, will provide the means to reunite as sisters and daughters of their mother:
“This is not for you to do alone,” La Llorona said. “You must come together, you and your hermanitas. You must rejoice in the strength of sisterhood and return the man to his family.”
“Because we’re lost?” I asked. Even as I said it, a pang of recognition that La Llorona was exactly right about us, that we were lost, fluttered to life within me much like the mariposas who were beginning to stir in the morning light. …
“Do it for your hermanitas. Deliver the man home to his family and then drive your sisters to El Sacrificio to see their abuela. Reunite your family, Odilia. It is all part of the journey you must take, the path to true happiness.”(55-57)
In La Llorona’s encouragement of a sisterly border trek to recover and “reunite” their maternal family, she further casts doubt on the common version of the weeping woman who searches for her lost children [End Page 103] because it is she who has drowned them. As Domino Renee Pérez reminds us, “From a young age, Chicano children are taught, under specific gender constraints and encoded patriarchal inscription, that La Llorona will ‘get them’ if they misbehave or wander too far from home or from sight” (104). Instead, La Llorona appears not to snatch Odilia and her sisters for standing too close to the river’s edge, but to aid the sisters in a voyage that will seal the sisterly connection.
Significantly, La Llorona’s advice to “reunite” does not connote the weeping woman’s insistence that the daughters search for their estranged father as the missing link to seal the family; rather, her request to “reunite [the] family” is a gentle encouragement to connect as sisters and daughters of their mother. With their father’s estrangement most likely a permanent absence from their lives, La Llorona wills the sisters to learn to create a “path to true happiness” as empowered sisters who, although they may be fatherless, they may still thrive in their mother’s care. By referencing the father’s wayward existence, La Llorona also positions the lost father as the parental figure who needs atonement, and in doing this, the novel subtly but powerfully challenges the many gendered layers of the tale. What is also striking is what they learn when they finally reach the dead man’s former residence and surviving family members: this man abandoned his family, much like their own father has done. By returning this man, a rather dishonorable husband and father, La Llorona provides a gentle way of preparing the sisters for confronting the truth of their own father’s flaws and abandonment. Further, despite the pain that the dead man’s return causes, La Llorona helps the girls deliver a sense of closure to this pained family, bringing an end to the questions surrounding the man’s whereabouts. By aiding a family in a time of complex emotions, the sisters are equipped with the tools to comprehend their own pain. Delivering the man is thus an act of compassion for the family and a lesson for the sisters.
The sisters’ border odyssey to return the dead man and to seek out their own grandmother nearby is wrought with both realistic and fantastic occurrences that they must battle by relying on each other for protection and safety. While the sisters initially fear that they are alone in their challenges to outsmart wily figures such as Cecilia, a woman who stuffs them with sweet foods, El Nagual, El Chupacabras, and La Lechuza along their way, it is La Llorona who remains a constant guide, teaching Odilia to trust her instincts and faith in her intelligence and sisterly devotion (147-48). In La Llorona’s presence throughout their quest, the novel rewrites masculinist fairy tales and legends by positioning [End Page 104] the mother figure as a source of safety, wisdom, and spirituality: “You come from a long line of curanderas, healers of the people,” La Llorona reminds her (148). As La Llorona’s advice suggests, the sisters’ surreal road trip and encounters with scary mythical creatures is necessary to reclaim this maternal legacy, to return to an ancient form of knowledge that is the key to their sisterly bond.12 If their father’s absence has potentially damaged their female union, then La Llorona’s advice functions as a feminist, maternal intervention.
Harking to La Llorona’s counsel to call to her and La Virgen de Guadalupe when they are in danger, Odilia must combine their sacred, feminist powers with her own daughterly memories to flee the nagual, for example, one of the mythical creatures who stands in the sisters’ way of returning to their grandmother and mother. As Odilia learns, she must sing a tune to repel the nagual’s presence:
“Que llueva, que llueva,
La Virgen de la cueva,
Los pajaritos cantan,
Las nubes se levantan …”
As I sang the ancient tune quietly to myself, I realized it was the refrain Mamá had sung to us to soothe our nerves on dark, rainy nights when we were very young. The rest of the song came to me, and I sang it, quietly, almost whispering it. I heard my sisters stir beside me, muttering as they woke, and I knew it was working. …
“Stop! What are you doing? Stop it! Stop singing!” the nagual was screaming. He sat up and began to retreat, crawling on hands and knees to the far end of the cave to get away from us, and so we kept singing. Louder and more forcefully we sang. And when I loosened the ropes from my sisters’ hands, we all stood in the center of the cave, joined hands, and sang louder and with more delight than any group of young girls ever sang before.(188-89)
As Odilia and her sisters sing their mother’s song, their powerful words recall memories they believed to be long forgotten, and in this moment, they learn the necessity of retaining and reclaiming a maternal oral (her)story. Although Mexican songs or lullabies quite often depict mothers in “rigid gender roles” of dutiful caretaking, according to Herrera-Sobek (“Danger!” 90), here the maternal song is much more subversive as a source of protection and demonstration of female voice. In their joining of hands and their resurgence of “forceful” voices, the girls create a sisterly community built upon their mother’s creativity [End Page 105] through song. This maternal knowledge and creativity was always present in their consciousness, but as they learn, it is their responsibility to unearth that which is apparently hidden. Moreover, they must resist patriarchal demands that they “stop singing,” as the nagual commands in his efforts to render the girls voiceless. Although the sisters instinctively recite seemingly forgotten words, the novel warns young girls of the dangers of forgetting maternal storytelling that functions as an empowering source of female kinship, bonding, and culture. These lessons are reinforced by La Virgen and La Llorona, and the appearance of these two figures creates an extended network of maternal protection that helps to encourage the sisters’ memory and united front. Rather than pit La Virgen and La Llorona as opposite ends of the troubling binary of good/bad mother, the novel encourages a Chicana feminist undoing of this faulty logic. No longer the passive or weeping women of Mexican Catholicism and folklore, both La Virgen and La Llorona serve as empowering, surrogate mothers who steer their daughters to safety.
In fact, one of the sisters’ most challenging obstacles is resisting the rather troubling, sexist messages vocalized later by the fierce lechuzas they are forced to confront. If folktales are intended to teach children the perils of failing to follow “appropriate” gendered lessons on behavior, as in the case of La Llorona’s tale, which “acts as a deterrent to behavior that is not culturally sanctioned” (Pérez 101-02), the sisters are tested in their willful efforts to withstand these dangerous mores. Their mother’s folk songs are a source of empowering maternal love, and it is this knowledge they must cultivate; however, the lechuzas’ cruelty is punishment for refusing to fulfill limiting gendered obligations, as they shriek to Juanita, “Oh, what’s the matter now? Why are you crying? Are you sad? Maybe you should have listened to your older sister. Maybe you should have stayed home and cleaned and cooked like your mother, instead of thinking you’ve got brains” (204). Although the sisters risk succumbing to the lechuzas’ shrieks and pecks, such dramatic scenes are intended as the novel’s warning to resist prescribed gender roles; indeed, their survival of a potentially dangerous transborder trek reveals their innate bravery and instinctual skills. The lechuzas mock Juanita’s love of learning, castigating a young girl for daring to pursue tasks unrelated to domesticity, but the sisters’ united lucha calls on all young Chicanas to resist misogynistic social, cultural messages that deny female intellectual and courageous pursuits. The sisters are forced to wage several battles against these mythical creatures, and while they struggle, the novel suggests that challenging the script of patriarchy [End Page 106] is a battle worth fighting, both literally and figuratively. By arming themselves with weapons such as pitchforks and rakes to fight off the evil owls (206-07) and to protect their youngest sister, Pita, the sisters usurp traditionally male-designated tools, symbolizing their embodiment of an active form of protection rather than passivity. According to Phillip Serrato, passages such as these are a “demonstration of the capacity of children’s literature to serve as a venue for the articulation and implementation of progressive gender politics” (133). Just as the sisters must resist problematic roles that designate tasks or traits according to gender, so, too must readers of Summer of the Mariposas question their acquiescence to these expectations.
On Reclaiming the Single Mother: Matriarchy and Empowerment
While the novel employs the tale of La Llorona to imagine an empathetic understanding of a woman who supports the sisters in their quest to remain united, the text is also concerned with pervasive myths of the “dysfunctional” and “unfit” Latina (single) mother. García McCall’s insistence on breaking down this harmful myth follows the tradition of Chicana feminist literature that has challenged degrading views of single mothers as inherently flawed or even morally corrupt. Given that degrading social policies and dominant views have positioned single and unwed mothers of color as irresponsible and dysfunctional (Handler and Hasenfeld 150), the novel suggests that this myth of the single Latina mother has dangerous consequences for young children, particularly young girls such as Odilia and her sisters, who may risk internalizing these beliefs about their newly single mother. Undoubtedly such problematic depictions are intended to uphold the patriarchal, Anglo, straight, and middle-class nuclear family as the universal, normalized ideal, which the novel challenges in its fostering of Chicana sisterhood. García McCall’s use of the subplot of the drowned, undocumented Mexican man as the early foundation for the sisters’ quest is quite telling of the novel’s subversive efforts in engaging with a more complex discussion of (im)migration along the heavily policed and dangerous US/México border; but further, the reality of Rosalinda’s new status as “abandoned,” single mother is additional proof of the novel’s attempts to combat easily one of the most vitriolic of recent epithets of Latina mothers as “breeders” of “anchor babies.” In addition to the mythical creatures the sisters must fight off, they must also defend themselves from falling prey to this view of their mother as [End Page 107] an unfit, helpless, and abandoned woman who simply births US-born children to gain access to citizenship.
For example, once the sisters reunite with their paternal grandmother, it is she who gently but firmly scolds her granddaughters when they voice doubts about their mother’s capacity to care for them following their father’s desertion. When the twins Velia and Delia describe their mother as “neglectful” (253), Abuelita Remedios comes to her daughter-in-law’s defense: “She’s a decent woman, with good morals and values. She’s always been a good mother and wife. I want you to understand one thing. Your mother didn’t do anything wrong. Your father left because he’s a louse, a good-for-nothing who cares more about himself than his own wife and daughters” (253). While Abuelita Remedios’s defense of Rosalinda is almost shocking in its tone of disgust over her own son Ernesto’s behavior, her refusal to idealize him and make poor excuses for his actions are particularly pointed. Perhaps most significant in this passage is the novel’s overturning of the problematic though pervasive myth of the “terrible” mother-in-law so often exploited in popular culture.13 Rather than uphold the myth of the terrible mother-in-law who is blind to her son’s faults at the expense of her daughter-in-law who is often blamed for the husband’s indiscretions, Abuelita Remedios models to her granddaughters a painful, though honest perspective of their father who is solely responsible for his behavior. In her castigation of her son’s selfishness, she cautions her granddaughters against falling prey to dominant and cultural messages that would render their mother “descuidada” or careless (253), a woman who deserves punishment for “failing” in her culturally, socially defined maternal and wifely obligations. Their grandmother’s redemption of Rosalinda’s qualities serves as an outward critique of social and cultural structures that cast blame on mothers, especially single mothers, rather than dismantle these systems that fail to support women in their roles as caretakers or mothers.
Their paternal abandonment is further significant in its connection to the story of La Llorona, given that some versions of the tale define her acts as malicious revenge for being abandoned by the father of her children. Most telling, Pérez posits, is that the “stratification of classes is particularly emphasized in nationalistic renderings of the tale, most notably casting the woman as a poor india and the male as a wealthy Hispano” (104). The tale’s embedded layers of race and class are not left out of the novel, and early on in the text, we learn that the girls’ father possesses fair skin while their mother’s appearance is distinctly [End Page 108] indigenous, and no doubt García McCall intends to draw similarities between the folktale and blonde Ernesto’s abandonment of his dark-skinned wife, Rosalinda. Yet lest we believe that the novel upholds a color caste system where dark is representative of inferiority and danger and fairness is its binary, there are passages in the novel, in fact, where blondness and fair skin are suspect, thereby encouraging readers to question such racist logic. Cecilia the witch, who feeds the girls to hold them hostage in her home, is described as having blonde hair (130), suggesting the novel’s subversive undoing of colonialist ideology. Indeed, it is to their brown mother that the sisters must return, signaling the novel’s efforts to reclaim an indigenous heritage that is denigrated as shameful. By uniting as sisters and returning to their brown mother, they must reject dominant views that relegate brown women, as reminders of an indigenous past, as “unfit” or “dysfunctional.”
Significantly, however, Ernesto is not simply “let off the hook” for his abandonment of his family; instead, he is forced to be accountable for his actions and to atone for his selfish behavior. The novel in no way signals the wayward father’s return as the cement needed to restore the patriarchal family unit from the supposed “brokenness” of the femaleled household. Unlike dominant myths that normalize the patriarchal family as the ideal kin network, the novel, in fact, suggests that it is this family unit that potentially holds more danger for women and girls because of its subordination of female power and voice.14 Using the scene of Ernesto’s reappearance as another critical, teaching moment on the dangers of internalizing colonialist ideology in relation to skin color, as well as contemporary disparaging myths of single mothers, we learn that their father intends to divorce Rosalinda so that he can marry his blonde girlfriend and serve as parent to her two daughters. Ernesto, his girlfriend, and her two daughters arrive to claim the family home as theirs, as Odilia discovers: “Suddenly I understood everything: the arguments with Mamá, his inappropriate riddle for La Sirena the last time we had played Lotería as a family, the disconnected phones, his unexplained disappearance, it all made sense now. Papá had been having an affair with this woman, and now he had brought her here—to our house!” (301, original emphasis). As Odilia recalls, the last time the family played lotería, Ernesto had alluded to a dangerous sirena who would take him away from their mother (“La mujer who wants to take your Papá away! No! We won’t let her!”), but beyond that, she is forced to confront her father’s cruelty head-on (2). In this moment, Odilia recognizes not only her father’s patriarchal power sanctioned [End Page 109] in his role as the game’s cantor, but she also discovers that this role as card caller is symbolic of Ernesto’s trickster side, a man who deals tricks and riddles to cover up his shameful acts.
Odilia learns that her father is not what she thought him to be, and in this painful lesson, she must use this knowledge to defend and protect her mother and sisters from her father and his new family who unsuccessfully try to steal the sisters’ home. The attempted theft of their mother’s home by fair-skinned Ernesto and his blonde girlfriend, of course, symbolically connects this moment to the conquest and colonization of indigenous lands, and in the sisters’ rejection of their father, they reclaim their mother(land): “I moved away from Papá and went to stand between Mamá and the twins. I took her hand in mine and held it tight. My hermanitas gathered around us, clinging to Mamá. “This is our house. You don’t live here anymore,” Odilia tells her father (308). In Odilia’s moment of Chicana feminist awakening, she embodies a powerful alliance built upon strong bonds of Chicana sisterhood and motherhood, supporting Rosa Linda Fregoso’s assessment of a tradition of Chicana writers who have “created alternative spaces for women’s communities” that dismantle the idealized heterosexual, patriarchal family (85). Unlike Ernesto, who shames Rosalinda for supposedly “allowing” the sisters to run away and for their “filthy” appearance (307, 308) rather than take responsibility for his desertion, it is Odilia who defends her mother from her father’s assault of Rosalinda as being “a disgrace as a mother” (308). Ernesto’s hypocrisy and reproduction of this gender double standard are called out by his daughters and their mother, who refuse to subordinate themselves to his sense of paternal authority as “owner” of a home he has deserted. Moreover, Rosalinda’s “fierce” appearance (309) as she orders Ernesto and his new family to leave her home renders her quite the opposite of powerless and helpless woman. Their eviction of the former patriarch from their matriarchal, empowered space must be read as the novel’s voicing of a distinctly progressive, Chicana feminist politic to teach young female readers the necessity of critiquing family structures that delegitimize their subjectivity.
Guadalupe García McCall has explained in interviews that her occupation as an educator gives her first-hand knowledge of the challenges faced by her young, predominantly Latina/o, students. As she [End Page 110] discovered, course materials she was encouraged to teach, such as The Odyssey, succeeded not in inciting lively discussion among her students, but instead, served as a stark reminder to her young Latina students that their stories are not visible within the field of literature. The lack of diversity in children’s literature is not accidental, but part of a larger, structural problem of racism in the United States that ignores or discounts the lives and stories of (young) people of color. Diverse children’s books serve to remind young children of color that they are not stereotypes; their stories and histories matter. García McCall’s novel is thus not only a significant addition to a long-standing tradition of young adult and children’s fiction by Chicana and other Latina writers, but this text’s recent publication must also be read as a contribution to the critical conversation taking place on the need for young children to see themselves in literature. If literature provides the tools to create empathy and validity to the lives of people, this is particularly true for Chicana and other Latina children’s and young adult texts that insist on the worthiness and value of young Latina/o children.
Guadalupe García McCall’s Summer of the Mariposas blends folklore and contemporary social rhetoric to offer a Chicana feminist commentary on the importance of strong bonds of sisterhood. In its rewriting not only of The Odyssey as a Chicana sisterly trek but of the folkloric figure of La Llorona as protective guide, the novel presents young Chicana and other Latina readers with an alternative vision of such stories to centralize women’s experiences. Moreover, in its critique of disparaging social myths of the “dysfunctional” Latina mother, Summer of the Mariposas challenges young girls to question such harmful views of single-parent households led by women. In its homage to the unified connection between las cinco hermanitas, young Chicanas are encouraged to foster and create bonds based on the feminist refrain of “together forever, no matter what.” And, ultimately, it is this message that empowering Chicana texts such as García McCall’s can use to address the systemic invisibility and erasure of children of color in children’s and young adult literature.
Cristina Herrera holds a PhD in English from Claremont Graduate University and is an associate professor of Chicano and Latin American studies at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of the 2014 study, Contemporary Chicana Literature: (Re)Writing the Maternal Script and co-editor of Reading/Speaking/Writing the Mother Text: Essays on Caribbean Women’s Writing (2015).
1. While this article will briefly reference the novel’s use of the road trip genre, I will not delve into a thorough analysis. For further discussion of the use of the road trip in Chicana literature, see, for example, Cristina Herrera’s article on road travel in Lorraine López’s The Gifted Gabaldón Sisters, listed in the works cited.
2. La Lechuza is an owl, typically depicted as white in color, but as folklorist John O. West explains, this supernatural figure also invokes witch symbolism (75). El Chupacabras [End Page 111] is another mythical creature that sucks the blood of goats. According to lore, El Nagual is a human who can transform into an animal, a shape-shifter of sorts.
3. See, for example, Anzaldúa’s well-known children’s books, Prietita and the Ghost Woman / Prietita y La Llorona (2001) and Friends From the Other Side / Amigos del Otro Lado (1997); Judith Ortiz Cofer’s Call Me María (2004); Sandra Cisneros’s Hairs/Pelitos (1997); Julia Álvarez’s 2002 novel, Before We Were Free, winner of an ALA Best Book Award for Young Adults; and Ana Castillo’s My Daughter, My Son, The Eagle, The Dove (2000).
4. “Five sisters.”
5. Please see Chicana scholar and folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s text, Women Who Run with the Wolves, for additional versions of the La Llorona tale, many of which cast doubt on the pervasive association of La Llorona with infanticide.
6. I do not suggest that scholarship on Anzaldúa has ever waned, but Keating’s efforts to make visible Anzaldúa’s lesser-known works cannot, and should not, be underestimated. See Entre Mundos / Among Worlds: New Perspectives on Gloria E. Anzaldúa (2005) and The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (2009).
8. For further reading on this, please see Olga Idriss Davis’s analysis on African American women writers of young adult and children’s literature. Although referring to African American women writers, her argument nevertheless may be applied to children’s literature by Chicana writers, including García McCall, which counters hegemonic narratives “by making a space for oppressed voices to name their experience, reclaim their history, and transform their future” (67). See also Dianne Johnson’s insightful reading of African American women writers and young adult literature.
9. A number of scholars have examined Chicana writers’ feminist revisions of La Llorona. With the addition of Anzaldúa’s children’s stories, please see her most significant work, Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza and Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years: lo que nunca pasó por sus labios; for scholarly work, please see Sonia Saldívar-Hull, among others. Full citations listed under works cited.
10. Their code of sisterly loyalty also overturns the misogynist interpretation of another crucial female figure in Chicana/o history and culture, La Malinche / Malintzin, as a “traitor” for her relationship with Hernán Cortés. See, for example, Norma Alarcón’s important analysis of La Malinche. Citation under works cited.
11. I do not engage in a discussion of the man’s death as a result of his migration, but for an insightful analysis on the representation of border deaths and disappearances in recent Chicana writings, please see Marta Caminero-Santangelo’s article, “The lost ones.” It is important to note, though, that the dead man’s presence on the border suggests García McCall’s nuanced understanding of the Anzaldúan paradigm of the border as “una herida abierta / an open wound” (Borderlands 25) that merges, often with conflict, American and Mexican cultures. The girls’ literal crossing of the border to return the dead man also suggests their lived reality as bicultural, transborder Chicanas.
12. Similarly, the young protagonist Prietita from Prietita and the Ghost Woman / Prietita y La Llorona, discovers the healing properties of native herbs. In the book, it is La Llorona who leads the lost Prietita to the plant that will cure her ailing mother.
13. Examples of the “terrible” mother-in-law are present in Chicana literature as well. Cisneros’s 2002 novel, Caramelo, describes the character Soledad as “The Awful Grandmother.” Yet while it may seem as if Cisneros is merely reproducing this terrible mother myth, the novel delves into a sympathetic rendering of Soledad’s character that is drastically altered by the harshness of her patriarchal family structure and her loneliness as a result of her beloved mother’s death. Significantly, according to the novel, it is the lack of a nurturing maternal, female community that turns Soledad into an “awful” woman later in life. See also Herrera-Sobek’s analysis of the “terrible mother” motif in Mexican folk songs, corridos. [End Page 112]