Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Faith and Piety, Corruption and Cynicism

A local judge by the name of Julano gambles with Sofi's husband, Domingo, even though he knows it is illegal. He also allows him to sign away the last of Sofi's property to honor it, even though he also knows that Domingo abandoned Sofi for over two decades. He then turns around and rents the property back to her (215-216).

Fe is scapegoated by both the federal authorities and Acme International for using chemicals supplied by the company to clean aircraft parts (a chemical that has been outlawed in the state) and then dumping it into the water system of the area. Moreover, she has been suspended without pay and is at the mercy of the medical system as an indigent (186-187).

One would think in this culture of corruption and the cynicism of those who run it, that the people themselves would be cynical and agnostic, but their faith and piety is that much deeper. They cope with the lousy medical care by seeking faith healers and using herbs and other products provided by nature. La Loca who contracts HIV and acquires AIDS is not given the same kind of top-notch care that wealthy people with benefits are given. She ultimately dies in the arms of the "Lady in Blue" (244-245).

They immerse themselves that much more in mysticism and miracles. Their existence as the poor and downtrodden is usually so hellish they see their fallen as martyrs and believe in heaven that much more fervently. Nowhere is this more evident than in the depiction of the events that coincide with The Way of the Cross Procession."

Some, like Sofi, carry pictures "of their loved ones who died due to toxic exposure" (241). The language describes Jesus' torture on the way to His crucifixion in the middle of current day suffering of his poor, hispanic believers. Jesus' condemnation to death is put in with the protest about the radioactive dumping. Jesus bearing his cross is put in about the ever desperate conditions they are living in. "Jesus fell, and people all over the land were dying from toci exposure in the factories." Jesus meets his mother as three Navajo women talk about the brain-damaged, cancer-ridden babies they gave birth to. Jesus is helped by Simon and the number of those without jobs increases. Veronica wipes Jesus' face as "livestock drank and sawm in contaminated canals" (242). Jesus falls again and is consoled by the women of Jerusalem while children also play in these canals. Jesus falls for a third time as the air is polluted by factory contaminants. AIDS sweeps the land as Jesus is stripped of his garments (243).

This piety and faith of the poverty-stricken is truly a Catholic phenomenon. As a Catholic, myself, I remember reading about the life of Saint Catherine, whose name I chose for my confirmation. In her legend, she has a dream where she is presented with two crowns; one a crown of thorns and the other a crown of gold. She is told that whichever crown she chooses for her earthly life, she will wear the other crown in the afterlife. She chooses the crown of thorns for her earthly life in hopes of attaining the crown of gold in her afterlife.

While the faith and piety of the people is beautiful, it keeps them too resigned, too long-suffering, too patient to effect real change for themselves, very much bearing out Marx's observation that religion is the opiate for the people. I think it is no accident that the countries that hosted Protestantism and Reformation religions that ultimately led to the Age of Enlightenment and the advance of secularism are cleaner and more prosperous.

Works Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Learn Your Role And Know Your Place

For many years, Sofia had been pitied as "la Abandonada," roughly translated as deserted, neglected, or abandoned (Larousse 2), but all these years, it had been a role she had been forced to play. A role which she had played so well that she ultimately had convinced herself that Domingo had deserted her. Until he had gambled away what was left of her land to a corrupt judge. (215)

"As her memory came back to her," she realized "how, back in those early days Domingo was little by little betting away the land she had inherited from her father, and finally she couldn't take no more and gave him his walking papers. Just like that, she said, 'Go hombre, before you leave us al out on the street!' Yes! It had been Sofia who had made Domingo leave" (214). "So, without exchanging two words about her decision with Domingo who surely must have seen it coming anyway, Sofia had her peacock-raising lawyer serve the papers she figured were twenty years overdue, and told him to leave" (216-217).

"But back then, to be excommunicated was more fearful to Sofia than the thought of destitution; not to mention that her mother was still alive then, and her mother had been like the Church's conscience incarnated to her daughter. If anything ever brought the fear of God to Sofi even more than the thought of being excommunicated it was her mother's disapproval, so divorce had been out of the question" (218).

So it had been better for everyone, including her daughters to think Sofi had been abandoned, leading to devastatingly codependent behavior in practically all of them.

Sofi reminds me a lot of my maternal grandmother who also married a slick, charming man. But my maternal grandfather was a womanizing ne'er-do-well who saddled her with the eight children who survived her fourteen pregnancies. My grandmother was pitied by the community because she had to work hard herself to support her community. Except at the height of the Great Depression when Franklin Deleanore Roosevelt's work programs prohibited giving work to any married woman who had a husband to support her.

My mother remembers this as the happiest time the family had where her father, a normally peevish and abusive man, was concerned. He would come home exhausted from work, his food would be waiting on the table and he seemed more mellow and affectionate back then. But shortly after the war in Europe started the factories up again, my grandmother voluntarily went back to work and my grandfather went back to being an itinerant painter.

Through the ensuing years, my grandmother labored in the factory pulling double shifts while the whole community, indeed her own children, pitied "Poor little Helen" for having to be practically the sole support of her large family and her lazy husband. What is interesting is that, after my grandmother divorced my grandfather because he was abusive to the children, he married his mistress, got a real job and supported her for the rest of her life. Even then my grandmother always publicly lamented over the disgrace of being divorced, refusing to even consider another man though she was still just in her fifties.

The truth is, like Sofia la Abandonada, Poor little Helen was a proactive woman who had made her own choices. My grandmother didn't care much for the life of a housewife, she loved making her own money, and she practically had to be forced out at retirement. And the reason why she never remarried after divorcing my grandfather was that she loved her independence too much. The problem is that, like Sofia, the last people she clued in were her own daughters who grew up with severe codependent issues of their own.

Works Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Larousse Concise Dictionary. Spanish-English/English-SpanishThird Edition, Paris France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Dreams Betrayed

In the very Catholic world of So Far From God, the highest thing that women can aspire to be is wife and mother. The idea that is presented to them by the culture is if the women made the right choices and did everything that was expected of them, they could achieve their goals. It was evident that Sofia messed up from the get-go.

"That marriage had a black ribbon on its door from the beginning. Sofi's grandfather had refused to give the young lovers his blessing, the father had forbidden Sofi's querido to step foot in their house during their three-year courtship, and the local parish priest joined the opposition when he refused to marry the couple in the church" (21).

Sofi's querido had a well-known gambling addiction and therefore, no one was surprised when he abandoned her and their four daughters to pursue his vice. It was the natural consequence of a very bad choice by a young woman who gambled that her love could change him.

Her daughter, Fe, on the other hand, had made all the right choices. She was twenty-four, "with a steady job at the bank, and a hard-working boyfriend whom she had known forever; she had just announced their engagement" (27). "Fe was beyond reproach ... She and Thomas, 'Tom' Torres were the ideal couple in their social circle ... He did not drink or even smoke cigarettes. They were putting their money away for their wedding, a small wedding, ... because they were going to use their savings for their first house. As it was, while Fe had a little something to talk to Esperanza about, she kept away from her other sisters ..., because she just didn't understand how they could all be so self-defeating, so unambitious." (28) Yet Tom ambushes Fe by mailing her a Dear Jane letter on the heels of her paying for the fitting of her own bridal gown.

Fe's case reminds me of my mother and her generation so acutely it makes me uncomfortable. Like Fe, my mother came from a poor, working-class family. Unlike her neighborhood counterparts, she graduated from high school, worked in an office, and deliberately did not marry any of the factory workers who were attracted to her. She had noticed that factory families were always in upheavals due to constant strikes by the workers who would simply impregnate their wives during the down times. She wanted better for herself.

My mother married an air force officer and was reasonably happy for about twenty-five years. Not long after he retired, he filed for divorce, leaving her with a Dear Jane note that he had never loved her. She had further found that in this age of No Fault Divorce that she would have to use all her resources to fight off his divorce action until the laws changed regarding military pensions. At the time, she was entitled to none of it and it was not unusual to find a general's wife having to work in a shop. This was particularly unfair because military wives were not allowed to work if they wanted their husbands' careers to advance.

My mother's lament was, "we were told that if we behaved ourselves, we would be taken care of." Well, twenty-five years later, society and my father had flipped the script on her. Just as Tom had flipped the script on Fe practically the eve of her wedding. Both the literary and real-life outcomes of hanging one's dreams on another person shows how foolish it is to do so.

Works Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Mothers, Martyrs, And Saints

Another aspect of So Far From God is how limited the roles the women are allowed to play. Moreover, the culture seems to have indoctrinated them to their limitations so well that they often find a way to sabotage themselves if the system or their own men don’t do it for them. Therefore these women never find self-actualization outside of being mothers.

The oldest daughter makes her career choices emotionally, strictly based on feeling unwanted by her lover and un-needed by her family. “Esperanza had blown the job offer in Houston back when she first got together with Rubén. Maybe that had been for the better since as it had turned out that was where his ex-wife and child had gone to start their new lives; and Esperanza was the kind of woman who felt that no town was big enough for the two exes of one man.” She accepts another big-time opportunity which takes her to Washington, D.C., because “it was pretty clear that there was no need for of her on the home front.” Finally with “Rubén, she concluded that fatality for them as a couple was only inevitable.” (46) These choices ultimately lead to her demise in Saudi Arabia on a dangerous news assignment which she dreaded taking to begin with. Though people believe she was martyred for her career, she was martyred for love.

After her abusive relationship with men, Caridad years for a relationship with a woman, but her religious and cultural upbringing is so strong that she disappears for a year only to be found living in a cave, becoming known as La Armitaña, roughly translated as the hermit (Larousse 255). She literally yearns for Esmeralda from afar, rarely speaking to her, but content to spy on her and her lesbian lover. Though it is believed she was led to life as a religious ascetic by God, it was forbidden love that pushed her there.

Sofia tries to assert herself and take care of problems in her area by running for la Mayor of Tome. It is an unofficial position, because no one ran for it, but she manages to rally her friends and neighbors to get of their behinds and actually work together for what they needed as a community (146). However, she is sabotaged by her own husband, Domingo, when he gambles away the deed to what is left of her property to the crooked Judge Julano. Even though gambling is illegal, the judge refuses to give it back and Sofia is powerless to make him. She ends up having to rent her own home from him. (216).

The only place where Sofia’s power is not challenged by the culture is her position as a mother and not only that, but a mother of martyrs and saints. To that end, she forms and becomes the first la presidenta of a world-wise organization she called M.O.M.A.S (Mothers of Martyrs and Saints). This is a place where Sofi is allowed to shine and she takes full advantage of it. She rules supreme determining who is a mother. According to her, adoptive mothers don’t count. Moreover, who is a mother of a martyr or saint? She proves this as she declines Tom’s mother’s application repeatedly through the years. In her own tiny sphere of influence, she’s a powerful woman.

Works Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Larousse Concise Dictionary. Spanish-English/English-SpanishThird Edition, Paris France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

Environmental Racism in So Far From God

Another underlying theme of So Far From God was the corrupt corporate-government collusion that practiced an environmental racism against the hapless Hispanic residents of the area. Faced with NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) Syndrome from wealthier, more politically active classes, the nuevo mexicano community is the perfect back yard to hold a plant that is no more than a toxic waste manufacturer.

Fe leaves her job at the bank after twice being passed over for promotion and remaining in New Accounts with no prospects of getting a raise. She is told, “although the company did not want to discriminate against her new ‘handicap,’ her irregular speech really did not lead itself to working with the public” (177).

When a former co-worker tells her about openings at Acme International where “the work was shit,” but “the pay was real good” (177), Fe applies there, knowing she could make twice what she made at the bank. What she does not know is that all the workers there are getting deathly ill, because they do not know it themselves. Their symptoms made them see the company nurse who gives them ibuprofen and tells them their headaches and pre-menopausal symptoms are normal in women over thirty and “had nothing to do with working with chemicals” (178).

Fe starts taking “every gritty job available” because “people were … given raises on the sheer basis of ’utilization and efficiency.’” (178) Fe ends up “working in a dark cubicle … with a chemical that actually glowed in the dark” (181). She is told that it harmless, merely ether, used to clean aircraft parts. However, she has to work alone with it. She is given a minimal of safety equipment, that is very ineffective and she is deliberately left to her own devices. She pours it down the drain until a supervisor bawls her out. “He instructed her then, like she was stupid instead of having only been following the order she’d been given by all the other supervisors, that from then on she should just let what was left in the pan evaporate rather than pour it down the drain” (184).

Fe is called a “specialty person” (184), but that is just another name for scapegoat, because she ends up being investigated by the government and “protected” by a corporate lawyer. Both tell her not to say anything to anyone even her coworkers (185), However, that doesn’t matter, because she is quickly dying of multiple cancers. She is put on unpaid probation, which leaves her without medical benefits and puts her at the mercy of medical care for the indigents, which she can only describe as “torture” (186-187). Left by her lawyer to dig up her own evidence to defend herself, she finds that she was not working with ether, but a substance that was illegal and banned in the United States. Furthermore, the substance she had inhaled was heavier than air, should have always been sealed and this is what she routinely dumped down the drain, allowing it to get into the area’s sewage system and water table. (188-189).

This section of the book really hit home, reminding me of what the locals call, “Cancer Alley,” in Trenton, New Jersey. It is a working-class neighborhood near some manufacture ring plants. Every other family in the area has someone who has died of cancer. I lost two uncles within five years of each other, one to brain cancer and the other to lung cancer. Though the authorities have repeatedly “investigated,” they have found “no reason” for this odd phenomenon.

Also in Austin’s poorer Eastern neighborhood, even though its residents were very politically active and vocal about it, it took years of lawsuits before the noise pollution that disturbed their peace during the summer from racing the boats at Aqua Fest was stopped. It took several more years to remove a local refinery that was right next to a densely populated area off East Airport Boulevard. The smell of that refinery was so strong, it made your eyes water, especially during the heat of the summer, when there was no breezes.

The only hope for the people of this country to address this environmental racism and classicism is to demand a government that investigates and promotes Green Companies or corporations that practice environmentalism. We have renewable energy sources in our own grain fields to fuel our engines as Rommel did during World War II. We can harness the wind and the sun even though they cannot be turned off if someone does not pay their electric bill. We have the very dirt that can build well-insulated homes. Even until we can put all these more environment-friendly companies into place, they can still be used to help clean up messes, even if they affect the stockholders’ bottom line.

Work Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Religious Sexual Repression in So Far From God

A recurring theme of So Far From God is how central the Roman Catholic Church was to the community and how it inhibited its adherents to Catholicism. Particularly, a thread of sexual repression is strongly felt throughout this story. Therefore, it not only affects the way people view their own experiences, but also adversely impacts each other with tragic results.

Caridad engages in a life of drunken promiscuity until she meets up with the wrong lover. She runs afoul of a serial killer who tortures and mutilates her. “Sofi was told that her daughter’s nipples had been bitten off. She had also been scourged with something, branded like cattle. Worst of all, a tracheotomy was performed because she had also been stabbed in the throat” (33).

Reaction to Caridad’s plight is peculiarly Catholic. It is an enabling combination of pity and condemnation. Caridad’s horrible experience is seen as her penance she had to undergo for her sin of fornication. Depending on the individual point of view, “For those with charity in their hearts, the mutilation of the lovely young woman was akin to martyrdom” (33). Masses were held, a novena was devoted to her, and old women prayed for her. “But there are still those for whom there is no kindness in their hearts for a young woman who has enjoyed life, so to speak” (33). The sheriff and the local police department make no effort to find whoever attacked her.

Caridad does not benefit from any kind of psychiatric support that would make sense of her attack, help her see her self-destructive behavior and not internalize her trauma the way she did. She cannot turn her anger outward on men, even as she withdraws from them. However, it is telling that she saw her attacker as an inhuman force, rather than a human monster. It is something her mentor, Doña Felicia described as the “malogra,” a “wicked wool spirit” (78). When Caridad falls in love with another woman at first sight. She tracks her down, “because she knew that she could not bear the thought of living without that woman“(79), but finds her with another woman. Rather than pursuing a relationship with her anyway, she leaves the area and lives out the year “in a cave in the Sangre de Cristo mountains” (86).

There her path crosses with Francisco, the celibate santero, defined as pious (Larousse 467), who falls in love with her, but suffers an even more religious, sexually repressed form of susto, or fright (Larousse 495). “As Caridad became more and more fixed in his consciousness, worse than any of the pine splinters that stayed lodged in his palms, Francisco el Penitente became more determined to exorcise her out at whatever cost to his body and soul” (191). Francisco sees a healthy lust for women as the devil's trap, so he sublimates his desire for her by putting her on a saintly pedestal. However, his sexual frustration leads him to spy on Caridad only to discoverthe equally repressed Caridad spying on a lesbian couple, having fallen in love with one of them, Esmeralda (203). Ironically, Caridad was aware he was following her around for months (208), but was too inhibited to confront him about it.

Suffering from his own secret passion for Caridad, Francisco recognizes hers for Esmeralda and reacts as the rejected lover in this subterranean love triangle of which Esmeralda is totally unaware, stalking, abducting and confronting her privately (207) before he eventually chases both women over a cliff by Esmeralda’s grandmother’s house in Sky City (211). Then Francisco hangs himself (212).

It is telling that, rather than confronting Francisco’s psychotic and anti-social behavior, neither Caridad nor Esmeralda challenged it by filing police reports and getting protective orders. Instead they simply ignored it, with tragic consequences to themselves and Francisco. Even an open lesbian, like Esmeralda, had been indoctrinated by the culture to enable a man’s controlling behavior.

Works Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.

Larousse Concise Dictionary. Spanish-English/English-Spanish
Third Edition, Paris France. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006.

The Co-Dependent Women of So Far From God

A recurring theme of So Far From God is how the women feel like failures if they are not with a man. Therefore, they accept no end of abuse, be it physical or emotional, from the man simply to stay in his orbit.

Caridad “fell in love with Memo, her high school sweetheart, got pregnant, and they married the day after graduation. But two weeks had not passed before Caridad got wind that Memo was still seeing his ex-girlfriend, Domitila, who lived in Belen; and Caridad went back home.” Caridad had three abortions, but did not tell anyone outside the family “about it but said to Memo and his family that Caridad had miscarried from being so upset bout Memo’s cheating on her. It was agreed by all that the marriage be annulled” (26) Thereby Memo is spared any responsibility to Caridad or her children at great personal risk to Caridad and her sister. They both face ex-communication and La Loca risks arrest. (27)

Caridad continues to see “Memo for several years until he finally made his choice. It was not Domitila of Belen and it wasn’t Caridad of Tome. It was the Marines. And off he went to be all that he never knew he was. For while it was said that the Army made men, the Marines’ motto, he was told was that they only took men” (27)

Esperanza’s reunion with Rubén after he dumped her to marry an Anglo woman consisted of going to tee-pee meetings of the Native-American church. “Every time they went to a meeting, which was maybe once every two or three weeks, everything was good between them. They went to the meeting. Sometimes they also did a sweat. Afterward, they went home and made love all day. The problem was that then she would not hear from Rubén again until the next time there was a meeting. She was beginning to feel like part of a ritual in which she herself participated as an unsuspecting symbol, like a staff or a rattle or medicine” (38). He refused to get involved in her life “which Ruben referred to derogatorily as ’careerist’” (38). He refused to take her out on a regular date between meetings; “he simply declined with no apologies, regrets, or explanations” (37)

Esperanza gets a moment of clarity about her relationship with Rubén. “He talked to her on the phone like she was a casual friend. Whom he prayed with and whom he made love with, but whom he could not call to ask on a given day how she was doing. (Sic) A casual friend who accepted her gifts of groceries, the rides in her car with her gas, all up and down the Southwest to attend meetings, who called her collect the month he left on a ‘pilgrimage’ to visit the Mayan ruins throughout southern Mexico, where she had not been invited to join him, but who always let her pick up the tab some place for a few beers and burritos …” while she worked at the “job which he suspected her so much of selling out to white society for but which paid for all the food, gas, telephone calls and even, let’s admit it, the tens and twenties she discreetly left on his bedroom dresser whenever she went over, knowing he could use it and would take it, although he would have never asked her directly for it” (40).

She finally realizes she must end this one-sided relationship, but instead of breaking things off with him face-to-face and reaming Rubén out over his shameless use and cavalier abuse of her, she calls him on the phone and drops him, citing the job she accepted in Washington, D.C., far away from home, as the reason she is doing so. The culture of these women seems to expect that, instead of demanding that their men act like men, they act like they really are men and do everything they can to protect their masculine pride. Their own pride does not matter. Memo is allowed to have Caridad and Domitila, too until he tires of them both and dumps them, crowing about how the Marine Corps proves what a man he is. Neither can get tired of his philandering and dump him. Esperanza must use a job as an excuse to drop Rubén rather than his own disgusting behavior.

The culture also enforces a double standard, granting freedom to look outside the culture for a “better” spouse for the men without really turning their back on the community. However, it is such that it never even occurs to Esperanza, the most “liberated” of the sisters to do the same. She buries herself in her dangerous job instead. Caridad, too, involves herself in men who vaguely resemble Memo instead of looking outside the culture, where familiarity has obviously bred contempt, for a “worthier” man.

By accepting substandard treatment from their own men and the double standard that keeps them from looking elsewhere for men to marry, these codependent women not only contribute to their own marginalization but that of their community.

Work Cited

Castillo, Anna. So Far From God. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1993.