Last updated: September 25, 2019
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Perhaps no two disciplines speak to the human condition better than psychology and literature. One arena catalogues and preserves the truths of humanity, while the other seeks constant understanding and affirmation of these truths. What can these two great investigators of humanity teach us about cultural differences? To answer this question, I will examine some aspects of Latin culture as reflected in a work of literature (Like Water for Chocolate), compare and contrast said aspects with my own experiences, and relate these findings to counseling practices.

 

Latin culture in the novel

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Both the novel’s protagonist and I, and our respective cultures, share a strong emphasis on family tradition. At the heart of the story lies a woman’s (Tita) relationship with her mother and the rest of her family. Tita’s fate and decisions are based on the needs and expectations of her family. All generations of the family live under the same roof, and many of the novel’s key interactions take place within the kitchen, which is the centerpiece of a family’s home. In addition, recipes passed down from generation to generation are the basis of the story’s structure (Eldridge, 2001).

 

However, where Tita and I differ is the extremes in which Tita views family loyalty. Tita places her family’s wishes and expectations above her own happiness. In fact, the strict demands of her own family provide the strongest evidence of prejudice and discriminatio against Tita. From the time she is a small child, Tita is taught that a woman’s place is in th kitchen. A young suitor, Pedro, asks for Tita’s hand in marriage. However, Tita’s mother, Mama Elena, will not allow her daughter to marry. Rather, the traditional mother claims that  Tita must care for her until the day of her death. Tita is trapped by these long-held beliefs, but she always secretly questions these traditions: “Tita turned away, trying not to let her mother see her frustration. She didn’t understand Mama Elena’s attitude. She never had understood it” (Esquivel, 1989, p. 130). But the reader learns that Mama Elena has been molded by those same restrictions. It is revealed after Mama Elena’s death that she too had been forced to give up the man she loved. In fact, Tita’s own sister is a product of that forbidden union. The tradition of repression makes Tita more like her mother than even she could have imagined. Strict hierarchy and tradition have been viewed as cornerstones of Latin culture (Bauermeister, 1998), and this novel takes those concepts to their extremes.

Another point of difference between Tita’s cultural traditions and my own is the emphasis on fantasy storytelling. At times, the whole novel feels like one fantastic folk tale. Elements of a literary tradition known as magical realism are abundant throughout Like Water for Chocolate (Like water for chocolate, 2007). From the opening scenes, when Tita’s birth comes in “a flood of tears” (Esqivel, 1989, p. 3), the reader is expected to accept mystical occurrences as a part of Esquivel’s story. For example, when the “flood of tears” leaves behind ten pounds of salt, the deposit is simply collected and utilized in cooking. (Like water for chocolate, 2007). However, the best example of fantasy found in the novel is in the ghostly visions of characters, especially Tita. Both Mama Elena and family servant Nacha haunt Tita. While Nacha’s apparition pays a visit when Tita is troubled, Mama Elena’s ghost only condemns her daughter. For example, when Tita and Pedro begin a secret affair that results in pregnancy, the elder woman scolds Tita for “the curse” growing inside her stomach. The roles of Nacha and Mama Elena in the spirit world further demonstrate the importance of family in Latin culture (Eldridge, 2001).

Tita’s story aids in understanding many of the cornerstones of Latin culture—family,

loyalty, tradition, and a hint of the fantastic—yet at its basis this young woman’s tale speaks of a

greater central theme in the Latin world, independence (Bauermeister, 1998). Mexico alone has

witnessed its share of battles and rebellions for liberation. And the stereotype of Latin machismo

has its roots in the fierce spirit of a people made strong by adversity and survival. Eventually,

Tita is able to make the ultimate statement on her newfound independence by finally standing up

to the spirit of her mother: “I know who I am! I am a person who has a perfect right to live her

life as she pleases. Once and for all, leave me alone…” (Esqivel, 1989, p. 199). Even Mama

Elena herself had shown traces of a fierce and independent women beneath the submissiveness:

“Her gaze met that of the captain in charge, and he knew immediately from the steeliness in her

eyes that they were in the presence of a woman to be reckoned with” (Esquivel, 1989, p. 89).

However, Tita alone shows her independence in action when she follows her heart and reunites

with her true love, Pedro.

For the rest of her life, Tita works to ensure that her young niece Esperanza will be free to pursue her own independence: “when Rosaura explained to Alex that he couldn’t because this little girl was destined to take care of her until the day she died, Tita felt her hair stand on end” (Esquivel, 1989, p. 252).  The eventual interracial marriage of Esperanza confirms Tita’s successful influence (Eldridge, 2001).

 

Counseling implications

 

What could Tita’s life and death—and the lives of the people she represents—possibly teach us about modern psychology? In one simple story, we can uncover some promising counseling techniques. For example, the Latin culture’s fantasy-oriented storytelling tradition can be used in narrative therapy. How can narrative enhance personal well-being? For children, narratives can help in understanding a problem by giving said problem a story identity (such as a dragon). Then, various therapeutic techniques become parts of a story of which the child is the main character. With a mixture of humor and intrigue, children are engaged with their therapy on a level they can comprehend (Epston, Freeman, & Lobovits, 1997).

Narratives can also work in adult therapy. In re-authoring therapy, patients are encouraged to rewrite their own life histories. They create numerous scenarios, ranging from their most ideal life outcomes to their most feared. By engaging in these practices, the patient evaluates his life and experiences from numerous viewpoints (Epston, White, & Murray, 1995). He can then more critically evaluate himself. A culture immersed in a storytelling mindset, like the Latin culture, could benefit from this approach to therapy.

Now let us consider the two additional primary themes of Like Water for Chocolate:  family and freedom. Latino psychologists have long concerned themselves with issues of togetherness and community. (Padilla, 1995). One promising result of this emphasis is Liberation Psychology. Rather than focus on ailments, Liberation Psychology highlights a patient’s strengths. First, the individual’s strong points (particularly in family relations) are uncovered. Then, these positive skills are honed and directed toward the patient’s self-motivated change (Liberation, 2000).

 

In liberation psychology, the patient/therapist relationship is a partnership. The therapist serves as a sounding board and a source of reflection for his patient. The effective therapist never analyzes, never interprets, and never lets his own perceptions color the progress of his patient. The therapist liberates himself from rigid techniques and an inflated sense of his own importance, making the patient and he true equals. The therapist merely provides the environment for change, but the actions of change must come from within the patient. Finally, liberation psychology is about social reform, a critical area for Latin life. Whether it be feeding the poor, helping old ladies across the street, marching for the cause of the day, or simply signing a petition, it boils down to one creed: only through saving the world can we truly save ourselves. (Liberation, 2000) Could Latino patients identify better with techniques of liberation psychology?

The prevalence of these techniques among the cultural group’s own psychologists would indicate the answer to be an emphatic yes.

The beautiful result of cross-cultural therapies is their ultimate relevance for all cultures.  Literature provides us with just a sample of the countless differences one will discover between cultures around the globe. Do we simply dismiss these differences, and pretend that one right and indisputable way of understanding humanity exists? Or can we finally agree that each culture just may have something to add to our understanding of the world? If we live in a diverse world, then our governments, our peoples, and our medicines and therapies should reflect this diversity.

 

Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word, or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. (Esquivel, 1989, p. 108)

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References

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Bauermeister, E. (1998). Like water for chocolate. Retrieved September 3, 2007, from 500 Great

Books by Women: http://www.gc.maricopa.edu/English/water.html

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Eldridge, C. (2001). Laura Esqivel, Like Water for Chocolate. Retrieved September 3, 2007,

from Greenman Review: http://www.greenmanreview.com/book/book_esquivel_

waterchocolate.html

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Epston, D., Freeman, J., ; Lobovits, D. (1997). About Narrative Therapy with Children.

Retrieved September 3, 2007, from World Wide Web: http://www.narrativeapproaches.com

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Epston, D., White, M., ; Murray, K. (1995). A re-authoring therapy: premises and

practices. Rethinking Psychology. New York: Sage.

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Esquivel, Laura.(1989). Like Water for Chocolate. Doubleday: New York.

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Liberation Psychology. (2000). Retrieved September 3, 2007, from World Wide Web:

http://www.krysallis.com

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Like water for chocolate. (2007). Retrieved September 3, 2007, from World Wide Web:

Like Water for Chocolate Thesis Statements and Important Quotes

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Padilla, A.M.  (1995). Hispanic psychology: a 25-year retrospective look. Retrieved September

3, 2007, from Stanford University: http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~culture/padilla.htm

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