Magical Realism in Ana Castillo's 'So Far From God'
When looking for the magical realism in Ana Castillo's So Far From God, and for those readers who know her work and her cultural background, one of the ways in which the author employs magical realism is as a skilled fiction writer. Castillo is writing about Latinos, a family of women. Her first step in employing magical realism is to set aside the Latino patriarchal cultural restrictions that would otherwise prevent the concept of "magical realism" from working in the story. Castillo had to find a way to overcome that allowed the reality to be used to advance the story past that obstacle. She also had the obstacle of Latino Catholicism, which is as equal a force with which to be confronted as is the patriarchal society. This essay is an examination of how Ana Castillo overcomes these obstacles in her book, and how she encounters and deals with other obstacles that might be placed in the way of Latino characters.
Freeing the Women in So Far From God
Right away Castillo helps the reader to understand how she will move past the restrictions of the patriarchal society placed on her female Latino characters. The key is the use of humor, and by taking those situations which are, in the life of Latino women, consistent as identifiers of their role in their society. The reality of the Latino culture suggests that the women, Sofi and her four daughters, around whom this story unfolds, should be in the background, while their male counterparts are in the foreground of the story. Castillo quickly dispels this cultural norm with humor, and also with the magical realism of one daughter, the second daughter, Caridad, whose dream in life it is to have a storybook wedding to her fiance, Tom. With this character, the second daughter, Castillo is conforming to the traditional Latino values, which she must do in exchange for the leeway she will take later in the story. The sacrifice of the second daughter to the traditions of her Latino culture come later, after Castillo has first taken what she needs as a fiction writer to move her story beyond the traditions.
In the first chapter, the opening lines of the book, Castillo breaks from the stranglehold of the Catholic Church by offering up Sofi's fourth daughter, three-year-old La Loca. La Loca's life is one of symbolism, which would no doubt cause the Pope in Rome to deny her magical realism as presented in Castillo's storyline (19). Castillo refers to this, the beginning of the first chapter, as "An account of the first astonishing occurrence in the lives of a woman named Sofia and her four fated daughters (9)." La Loca actually begins by dying, then has resurrected when, while lying in her coffin at her funeral, she sits up (22).
This began La Loca's long life phobia of people, because of the response to her resurrection; and the fact that she, like Christ, worked post resurrection miracles (23). While there are those who might interpret La Loca's magical abilities as "magical," that is not quite where Castillo wants us to go as the reader with the concept. It is easy to disagree with those who call La Loca's miracles magic, because Castillo has gone to great pains to associate the details of La Loca's very special life with the life of Christ. This is a concept that would help break the Latino women away from the traditional patriarchal society, which includes, for Latino women, the Church. Here, Castillo is putting Latino women on the same level of men, by using a symbolic female Christ figure. Animals have a symbolic role, one recreated in the story of La Loca to counter the role of the animals in the stable where the Christ child was birthed. The story about La Loca's death goes this way:
Her mother Sofi woke at twelve midnight to the howling and neighing of the five dogs, six cats, and four horses, whose custom it was to go freely in and out of the house (19)." The animals alarmed Sofi as to the death of La Loca, who suffered from epilepsy. When la Loca was resurrected, she claimed to have visited Heaven and Hell, and, as in the story of the Crucifixion of Christ, after He had risen, and he warned Mary not to touch Him; La Loca, too, warned the Father Jerome, "Don't touch me, don't touch me!"
It is important to the story, and important to the direction that Castillo takes us for her female characters to overcome these problems. When Father Jerome wants to put a different take on La Loca's rise from the dead, suggesting that the event is less Godly than evil, Sofi will not hear of it (23). Sofi eliminates that thinking from the reader's thoughts, because now La Loca will go about her mission of performing miracles on earth.
Elizabeth Mermann-Jozwiak (2000) refers to the story as "postmodernism," and it is easy to agree with that analysis, because we find that Castillo has put aside the traditional or classic treatment of the Latino in literature, for the postmodern version (101). Castillo has completely built a new tradition for her characters, and they shed the old classical concepts that keep Latino women within a framework of machismo and suppression. Castillo allows her characters to become the key figures in their own worlds, but with each one she is careful to show how that character steps outside of the realm of realism, and into the magical realism that becomes the character's own role and world.
Esperanza, Sofi's oldest daughter, is the first to go to college where she studies journalism, and graduates to become a television news anchor (26). Esperanza also begins her story by shedding her patriarchal chains. Esperanza has a boyfriend, a fiance, but he leaves her for a "white girl" with a corvette (26). Esperanza actually craves some of the stereotypical recognition that her sister, Caridad, receives because of Caridad's ethnic beauty.
Caridad is freed, but in a different kind of way than Esperanza or La Loca, or even Sofi. Caridad is the embodiment of the Latino stereotype, and she does not "overcome" this, because she is who she is. Rather, she is a victim to her own "stereotypical" nature, and has to overcome that. In other words, she must overcome her stereotype image, an image created in the minds of non-Hispanics about Hispanic women, and the patriarchal society which confines her in order to be free. Caridad is also set free, too, because Castillo uses her stereotypical Latino traits in an unconventional way, and a way that is not necessarily in keeping with the classical image of the Latino woman. Castillo uses Caridad's ethnic beauty against her, thereby freeing her from that restriction (26).
Sofi's third daughter, Fe, was not one who understood or appreciated her home, mother or siblings (28). She was the manifestation of the Latino stereotypical imagery, and she was happy with that. She worked in a bank and was engaged to be married to Tom (29). She had all of her arrangements made, her bridal dress, and the Saturday her bridesmaids were to meet for their fitting - which did not include among them her sisters - she received a note from her husband to be, advising her that he was not ready to marry her (30). Fe locked herself in the bathroom and created a commotion unlike any ever heard of in the house before (30). The people who came to her rescue were her family, those very individuals of whom she had been embarrassed of and did not understand. Fe was freed from her Latino accepting stereotype when Castillo reduced her to an emotional wreck.
This is how the author used magical realism to free her characters from the chains and servitude of their religious, stereotypical, patriarchal Latino images that are imposed upon Hispanic women. Once Free, and done so with a sense of humor and in a way that causes the reader to want to read further, Castillo can now move her story forward.
The notion of home is a central them in Castillo's story. Sofi has created a home for her daughters, even though she has been abandoned by the children's father, she still manages to survive. After La Loca's death experience and resurrection, La Loca becomes somewhat homebound, not wanting to be around people other than here mother. The animals are La Loca's immediate world, and the house itself is secondary to the pets. Sofi's other three daughters are ready to leave the nest - especially Fe, who sense of alienation form her family casts her in an almost alien situation. Carmela Delia Lanza (1998) describes the home setting this way:
Sofi is the head of her home, a home she has created for her daughters. For one daughter, Loca, the home is the only space she can call her own.…