Como agua para chocolate: thirty years on the boil

by BAS editor Nathanial Gardner

In early 2022 it will have been thirty years since Como agua para chocolate premiered as a feature film.  Its release came three years after the novel, published in 1989, took the literary world by storm.  

The novel was Laura Esquivel’s first.  Like many pieces of great fiction, it has some basis in history.  The writer had a great-aunt named Tita who was not allowed to marry but was obliged by her mother to take care of her until she died. And that was how her great-aunt spent her life, only to die a short time after her mother passed away.  

Esquivel’s debut novel reimagined the sad story of her relative. Her fictitious Tita not only rebels against and outlives her controlling mother, but is able to be with her paramour, Pedro. This outcome is made possible by a number of deus ex machina resolutions (ie. her rivals die, thereby releasing her from at least some of the social trappings that had kept her from following her desires). However, like many telenovela-style narratives, the frequent appearance of easy solutions is not underlined. Instead, elements such as magic realism and Mexican cuisine are placed in the foreground. Never mind that this famous Mexican novel is ultimately a story of marrying up and leaving Mexico: the emphasis on carnal pleasure proved to be a recipe for literary and filmic success.  

Critics are divided on Como agua para chocolate. Some have dismissed it as lite literature that merits little critical attention. A greater number have looked on it with curiosity and have found nuances in the narrative (visual and written) that invite lively critical discussion. Its use of magic realism shows a departure from that of its contemporary kings such as Gabriel García Márquez. The novel’s structure reveals innovation and, not unlike Cien años de soledad, literary elements that cannot easily be translated into cinema (such as the role of the recipes in the written version).  

To date, it is Esquivel’s most studied literary work – which is not to say that her other work lacks merit. The success of Como agua… allowed her to write La ley del amor. This novel shows a strong flare for innovation in topic and structure (as it contains tints of science fiction and a CD that serves as the novel’s soundtrack). Her other novels, such as La Malinche, delve into Latin American history and rewrite parts of it with a new perspective.  

Rewriting history is a theme in Esquivel´s work. For example, Como agua para chocolate does something that most novels never do: it has rewritten itself. Her novel El diario de Tita, published when the original story was about to reach its thirtieth anniversary, tells the story of Tita and Rosaura essentially between the November and December chapters of Como agua para chocolate. In it, Tita becomes a photographer, and she and Rosaura make peace.  Pedro abandons the ranch and lives an independent life out of respect for the two sisters.  

Esquivel uses this later novel to update her first book, with El diario de Tita reflecting the political correctness of the time in which she wrote it. Unsure why the author would drastically modify her narrative in this way, the reader can wonder whether Esquivel’s political career (as a diputada federal) made her feel obliged to offer a more progressive resolution of the tale. Tita’s Diary, as it has been published in English, is evidence of the author’s strong following and the enduring appeal of the original text. However, the fact that the new narrative has not been made into a film, nor is a topic of discussion or debate among literary critics, is evidence that this reworking of the story has attracted less interest.  

Why study Como agua para chocolate as a modern classic? In part, because of its freshness and playfulness: it is a novel that does not take itself too seriously. It skillfully and innovatively employs literary devices of its time (magic realism). It is also steeped in references that every Mexican would know, in terms of food and history (the Mexican Revolution) while suggesting ideas from the 1980s (such as forward-thinking women) without sacrificing spicy tales of love, dashing foreigners, and villains who are easily despised and defeated.  

In short, it is literature that can be studied on its merits, and/or enjoyed as a release from the quotidian drudgery, a combination integral to its success.