Like Water for Chocolate was a milestone in publishing history. After an almost twenty year dry spell of no Hispanic literature, Like Water for Chocolate was more than a hint to publishers, it was a
slap in the face. "It was the first concrete sign that Spanish-language books could sell. And sell well," said publishers to Mary Tabor of The New York Times in March of 1995. In the early nineties publishers found that there was money in publishing Af
rican-American and gay and lesbian books (Bearden 40). These trends were followed in the same manner with Like Water for Chocolate. However, there was a difference. The gay and lesbian and Afro-American texts were targeted at these audiences prior
to publishing. Like Water for Chocolate's success as a foreign-language book was a surprise. It was actually the author, Laura Esquivel, herself that insisted that the book be published simultaneously in English and Spanish in the US. Doubleday
was not thrilled with the idea, and set out tentatively at first, but found that this gamble was wise (Bearden 41). In some US cities, more Spanish versions sold than English versions (Arana-Ward X10)The reason, unnoticed previously by publishers, was the
exponential growth of Hispanic-Americans in the past twenty years. They are growing at almost five times the rate of the normal population and are quickly nearing 10% of the nation's population (Bearden 40). After this initial success, publishers ever
ywhere went wild. Within a year of Laura Esquivel's novel's first printing, Doubleday tried again with another Spanish novel, Poncho, that had been on Anchor's back list for over 35 years, selling around 5,000 books a year, but only in English.
After finding similar success with Poncho, dozens of other books were translated into trade paperbacks and stuffed into the impulse-buy racks at grocery stores. These titles included Danielle Steel's The Gift, Mary Ellen Ponce's Hoyt Street:
Memories of a Chicana Childhood, Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, Esmeralda Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican, Manuel Puig's The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and many, many more. These books did well on the marketplac
e. The trend of pushing Hispanic books has slowly subsided, simply because translating is difficult and risky, as well as expensive. However, new ground had been cut, and Like Water for Chocolate was what cut it. Laura Esquivel was questioned abou
t this new trend that her book started. She said that it was bound to happen at some point at that she got lucky. Besides, she did not believe that it was much of a trend. "It's not a passing fad or anything like that," she said. "The point of view that
is expressed in Latin-American writing is somehow responding to a need that exists in readers" (Herguth 27).
But why was Like Water for Chocolate so significant a book that it made it that far? Critics have claimed that the content of the book was rather callow (New Yorker 1994). Being so unlike war novels and profound works of literature, what special qu
ality about Like Water for Chocolate made it worthy of a multimillion dollar publishing house like Doubleday? Thousands upon thousands of novels are dumped at publishing houses daily. They are all shuffled through, and picked at, but the chances of
actually getting a book published are slim to none.
The top ten bestsellers in 1993 were: The Bridges of Madison County, by Robert Waller; The Client, by John Grisham; Slow Waltz at Cedar Bend, by Robert Waller; Without Remorse, by Tom Clancy; Nightmares and Dreamscapes,
by Stephen King; Vanished, by Danielle Steel; Lasher, by Anne Rice; Pleading Guilty, by Scott Turow; Like Water for Chocolate; and The Scorpio Illusion, by Robert Ludlum. Every one of those authors (except Robert Waller)
had had bestsellers before. In fact, the average number of bestsellers between those eight authors (other than Esquivel) is eight. Laura Esquivel was the only one of these authors who was publishing for the first time. Esquivel's novel had some recogniz
able quality that made it competitive with books that had best-selling names on their covers. Like Water for Chocolate was described initially by Doubleday as "a tall-tale, fairy-tale, soap-opera romance, Mexican cookbook and home remedy handbook
all rolled into one," (San Francisco Chronicle). This novel fit into so many genres so easily that it was a good bet for publishers. If it went wrong in one area, it still had many other categories it could succeed in.
Like Water for Chocolate actually succeeded in most all of those categories. The most probably reason for its high sales was the accompanying movie, but just the same, it must have had enough quality to be considered for production.
Examination of the other bestsellers, and which magazines Laura Esquivel's name popped up in most frequently (Hispanic women's journals), reveals that Like Water for Chocolate more than likely shared a Daniel Steel quality of the romance novel as
well as the mystical appeal of an Anne Rice novel. Both of these women get TV movies made from their books, and they both get six-month intervals on the best-seller lists, but if their forces were combined, results such as Esquivel's would be seen.
Laura Esquivel was writing for the Hispanic women out there struggling for the "woman of the nineties" ideal. Like so many romance novels, Like Water for Chocolate presents a heroine initially swamped with problems and overwhelmed with her life, wh
o has her breakthrough by the end of the novel in triumphant success. However, unlike Danielle Steel's novels, where the heroine comes upon some major epiphany or self-discovery, gets the guy or the job, or the baby lives, Esquivel's heroine, Tita, bur
ns alive with her lover in the heat and utter bliss of their passion. Like Water for Chocolate revels in the ridiculous nature of romance novels, but the mystical, magical element of the story suspends disbelief up to a point where burning alive w
ith joy seems perfectly reasonable and only fitting (Jaffe 217). Even this incredible content is accepted by those readers who look upon the gothic element of Anne Rice's novels with disdain. Because most of these magical elements in Like Water for C
hocolate are based upon Mexican mythology, tradition and culture, they make these fantastic events not unfeasible, but cultural. This extra bonus, the exotic factor, pushes Like Water for Chocolate over the edge. Hence, it incorporates romance
readers, mystic readers, sci-fi readers and escapists.
Latin-American women have struggled greatly to get out of female oriented jobs. Most still occupy blue-collar work. Tita de la Garza, Esquivel's heroine, is this woman. She is (every woman) the Hispanic women today that struggle with oppression, only she
is still in Mexico, on a ranch, in the traditional Mexican household. Tita was raised by the cook, Nacha, in the ranch kitchen. Unlike her two older sisters, Tita never enjoyed the pleasures of being a rich man's daughter. When she comes of age, Tita
falls in love with the handsome Pedro. Pedro professes undying love to her and she agrees to marry him. Unfortunately, this can not happen. Tita's mother (the big bad witch) - who seems to represent society - tells Tita that the youngest daughter will n
ever be allowed to marry, and she must stay at home and take care of the mother. (the Hispanic women can not make names for themselves or be themselves, they must always be servants) (de Valdes 78).
Tita and Pedro's love does not die, but he marries her sister in order to be closer to her. This satisfies the family for the most part, but Tita is devastated. This is the first mountain that Tita must climb: getting out from under the thumb of her moth
er. Her second most difficult trial is coping with the man she loves sleeping in the bed next to her sister. Her salvation comes through her powers of cooking. She somehow involves her emotions into her food so that they come out when people eat them. Sh
e is required to cook the wedding cake for her sister and Pedro's wedding. She cries so much into the batter that everyone at the wedding gets sick from the cake. "From the moment they took their first bite of cake, everyone was flooded with a great wave
of longing?.an acute attack of pain and frustration?. Everyone there, every last person, fell under this spell" (37). Tita also shares her bouts of passion and frustration to others through her food. This exotic magical behavior (the word magic is used o
ver 40 times in the book) empowers women with hope that they too can overcome oppression and old rules, if not any other way, then through the one thing that makes them essential to others (Fernandez-Levin 106).
American female readers had not seen this sort of story yet. Romance novels are continuously changing locale from the wild, wild west to the greens of Scotland. This new grown up fairy-tale promised to be a delight to avid pulp readers. It was more than
likely chosen out of the stacks of thousands of texts because it was novel, but was still that same sort of material that has been stocking the bestseller lists for almost ten years. It was never expected how dramatically the novel would effect American
literature or the movie industry.
And Like Water for Chocolate might have just been a popular sci-fi romance had it not been for the movie. The success of the accompanying movie was phenomenal. The movie was the largest grossing foreign language film in American history (Arana-Ward
X10). It seemed Americans did appreciate exotic, artistic movies after all, as long as they were really easy to understand. After the film version of Like Water for Chocolate (directed by Esquivel's husband, Alfonso Arau) was released in 1993, b
ox offices were swamped with other Hispanic movies. Some of these are Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits", Arau's "A Walk in the Clouds" (starring the oh-so-talented Keanu Reeves), "Desperado" (a 90's version of El Mariachi), "Fools Rush In" (h
alf Hispanic, half pushing FRIENDS star Matthew Perry), "Dance With Me", and "Zorro!" These movies introduced new Hispanic actors and actresses to Hollywood that have since become their own Hollywood version of pulp writers. With "the House of the Spirit
s" Hollywood met and fell in love with Antonio Banderas. He was the first Hispanic sex symbol the States had seen. That was, of course, until Salma Hayek came along in Desperado (co-starring Antonio Banderas). Both of these actors had been making Spanish
films for years, but the craze for Americanized Hispanic movies in the US brought them to Hollywood. By itself, Like Water for Chocolate was a good movie. But it is not important just because it was a good movie. It is particularly important becaus
e it was the movie that would trigger the rush of Hispanic culture into Hollywood.
The movie was the advertisement for Like Water for Chocolate, and together they introduced Hispanic culture into the United States. This is particularly important in a time where there was a degree of animosity in the nation over the number of immi
grating Cubans, Haitians and Latin Americans. Rather than being seen as immigrants they were seen as a culture-rich exotic brood. True, both the movie and the book played into stereotypes that Americans might have had of Latin America as being "lust-ridde
n, superstitious and amusingly spicy" (New Yorker 1994). After all, Like Water for Chocolate is a Mexican expression to describe a state of sexual arousal (Stavans, 846). However, Hispanic Americans did not seem to mind the stereotyping as long as
Americans were noticing that Hispanics were valuable people, too. Besides, the fact that Publishers recognized that they had a Hispanic audience in America is a sign that for nearly twenty years Hispanic immigrants had been seen as that, Hispanic immigra
nts, and now they were considered Americans (Campbell 9).
Laura Esquivel wrote one other book after Like Water for Chocolate. The Law of Love, her second novel, hit the American markets just as the Hispanic craze was dying down, and thus, it did not do well. However, her first book and movie opene
d a floodgate of Hispanic talent into the US. She can be thanked by the many movie stars and Hispanic novelists who might not have made names for themselves in American had it not been for her initial success.
Arana-Ward, Marie. "Laura Esquivel." The Washington Post, May 8, 1994. pX10.
Bearden, Michael. "Esquivel's Spanish Primer." Publisher's Weekly, October 3, 1994. Pp40-44.
Campbell, Kim. "Book Publishers say 'Hola' to US Hispanic Market." The Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 1995. Pp9.
De Valdes, Maria Elena. "Verbal and Visual Representations of Women: Como Agau Para Chocolate/Like Water for Chocolate." World Literature Today. Winter, 1995. V69 no.1, pp78-82.
Fernandez-Levin, Rosa. "Validating Feminine Consciousness: Ritual and "Sacred Space" in Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate." Confluencia. Fall 1996, v12, no.1, p106-120.
Herguth, Bob. "Esquivel Answers from the Heart." Chicago Sun Times, october 27, 1996. P27.
Jaffe, Janice. "Hispanic American Women Writers' Novel Recipes and Laura Esquivel's Como Agau Para
Chocolate (Like Water for Chocolate)." Women's StudiesVolume 22, No. 2 (1993) pp217-230.
New Yorker. June 1994, pp80-81.
Stavans, Ivan. "Tita's Feast." The Nation. June 14, 1993. Pp846-848.
Tabor, Mary B. W. "THE MEDIA BUSINESS: U.S. Publishers Discover Spanish as a Second Language." The New York Times. March 13, 1995, Late Edition.