A Woman of Ordinary Splendor
Watercolor Women, Opaque Men: a novel in verse
by Ana Castillo
Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, 2005, 269 pp.
During the past thirty years, Ana Castillo has published four novels, five books of poetry, one short story collection, one volume of scholarly essays, three edited or co-edited anthologies, and a children’s book. Often referred to as a “pioneering” Chicana author, Castillo has been praised for giving voice to the lives and concerns of Mexican/Chicana/india women. Significantly, she does not simply make visible these previously ignored lives. By putting marginalized women at the center of her poetry, fiction, and prose, Castillo critiques and attempts to transform mainstream culture. As she explains in Massacre of the Dreamers, her 1993 collection of essays,
Our vision must encompass sufficient confidence that dominant society will eventually give credence to our ways, if the world is to survive. Who, in this world of the glorification of material wealth, whiteness, and phallic worship would consider us holders of knowledge that could transform this world into a place where the quality of life for all living things on this planet is the utmost priority; where we are all engaged in a life process that is meaningful from birth to death.
Watercolor Women, Opaque Men represents Castillo’s most recent attempt to enact this potentially transformative knowledge. This novel in verse focuses on Ella (Castillo’s italics), a woman “common as the rows of artichokes she picked, / skin burnt like roasted almonds, // But more or less clever in a city dress.” Consisting of thirty chapters of three-line stanza poems, Watercolor Women, Opaque Men narrates Ella’s life: her childhood working in the fields of South Texas, her escape from this migrant life and her journey to Chicago, her marriage and the birth of her child, her divorce, her complex relationship with her son, her romantic encounters with both women and men, her aspirations as an artist, and the various working-class/working-poor jobs she adopts in order to support herself and her son.
The chapters vary in length, ranging from two to sixteen pages. Each chapter is a single poem, told from a specific point of view: sometimes we see Ella through her own eyes; other times we see her through the eyes of family members, lovers, or admirers. Castillo carefully organizes these perspectives, creating a multifaceted, multilayered character. Although poetry can be intimidating to some readers, Castillo’s poetic style—which she describes in her 2000 book of poetry,I Ask the Impossible, as “idiosyncratic, pertaining to no-school-that-I-know-of brand of poetry”—is generally accessible and often inviting.
As in her previous writings, Castillo combines storytelling with social critique and revisionary myth. Ella’s life unfolds within the context of Castillo’s exploration of a variety of human rights issues, including the physical and psychic exploitation experienced by undocumented workers, sexual harassment, colonization, sexism, racism, ageism, incest, the maquiladora system, and poverty. For example, in the chapter “In the Jaws of Xolotl,” as Ella and a coworker clean offices at night, they discuss the brutal Juárez, Mexico, serial murders of “Brown girls / with no way to defend themselves // And no one to / write so much as a letter / on their behalves.” Likening these young women to “the daughters of Demeter,” Castillo shifts into Greek, Aztec, and Judeo-Christian myth:
It was Xolotl,
grotesque underworld god
who stole Xochiquetzal.
Queen of Spring and Beauty,
Goddess of love
and carried her down.
He ravished her there.
He licked her bones clean.
A psychopath of a deity.
Who came up with these things?
Priests who pricked their genitals
with peyote or hongos or
fresh blood they drank from
The “Christs” that they
Castillo exposes these religious systems’ “phallic worship,” dignifies the murdered women, and challenges the romanticized mythmaking found in some Chicano writings.
In Watercolor Women, Opaque Men, Castillo elevates character over plot. Like the protagonists of Castillo’s fiction, Ella is a marginal woman, a permanent outsider, both because of her artistic sensibilities and because of her ethnic/cultural identity as a mestiza:
She was alien,
not because she had antennae
or lacked a green card.
But because of what went
on in her head
and outside her head.
There was a white world
and there was a black world.
She fell through the cracks.
In this passage Castillo reiterates a point she often makes in her writings: the United States’ obsession with a racialized “black” / “white” binary ignores the many mixed-race and indigenous peoples in this country.
By selecting the name —the Spanish word for “She”—Castillo bestows on her protagonist a broadly representative status. After all, any woman or girl can be referred to as Ella, or, She. Grounding the universal (She) in the particular (the character Ella), Castillo gives visibility, dignity, and respect to women whose experiences are often erased in mainstream culture. Ella is an ordinary brown woman, a single mother from a campesino background who works a series of low-paying, menial jobs. But by describing Ella from so many perspectives, Castillo underscores the richness of her life. “Part Medusa, / part Mother Goose, / and part Xochiquetzal: // The Love Goddess,” Ella represents a bold challenge to stereotypes of single mothers and to conventional Western representations of motherhood as nurturing, passive, and asexual. Ella is an intellectual familiar with a wide range of Western and feminist thinkers, the sole provider for her son, and a prolific lover. She multitasks so extensively that her son wonders
how had the mother,
maid (at home and on the job),
of the colorful parade
Of men and women
who passed through her life—
Found time to learn?
In Castillo’s verse novel, motherhood is not natural. Thus in the chapter, “Cipactli: Woman as Monster,” Ella identifies herself with this primordial mother sea-creature goddess whose torn body, according to Aztec myth, became the heavens and earth:
Soy Ella–la Otra
who once was
Now I am She
and I have always been
Unnatural, as it seems,
the beginning. (Castillo’s italics)
And indeed, Ella is not ruled by some supposedly innate maternal instinct; nor is she passively acquiescent to male authority. She is, rather, filled with her own desire for life: “She was a self-created monument / to the Post-Modern Woman as / Maternal Monster.”
Less successful are Castillo’s attempts to challenge conventional representations of female (hetero)sexuality. The most extensive depiction of Ella’s romantic encounters with women occurs in the chapter, “Governess of the Subconscious,” a sixteen-page poem narrating her passionate affair with her first woman lover. But as in Castillo’s previous descriptions of women’s same-sex relationships, she inadvertently reanimates dangerous stereotypes. Look, for instance, at this description of Ella’s lover: The Daughter of the Father
Who is the son he never had,
a perfect clone of him,
except she knows how to love
Women, unlike her father
who did not.
Sometimes, she imitates him too accurately.
Acting like a man is her own
Although Ella willingly leaves her husband for this woman, she experiences enormous guilt: “I heard my mother’s warnings. . . . But my heart was pounding / like a symphony drum, / BOM BOM BOM.” Torn between her body’s desires and Catholicism’s rules, Ella fears that she will be disowned by her family, condemned by the Church, even rejected by “everything in the universe from / as far away as boiling red Mars.” Like so many of the same-sex relationships Castillo depicts in her work, this relationship ends in failure when Ella's lover betrays her with another woman.
Other notable women include Ella's Mamá Grande, “The Primordial Grandmother,” and her Tía Renata—who is not Ella's “aunt by blood // But by marriage and circumstance.” These autonomous, powerful women instruct Ella in the art of self-reliance. When Ella runs away from home at the age of eighteen, Renata offers her shelter, insists that Ella leave South Texas, teaches her to drive, accompanies her to Chicago, warns her about men, and instructs her in heterosexual lovemaking.
The opaque men in Ella's family include her father, a migrant farmworker whose eye is gouged out while picking tomatoes; her brother, a career military man whose plane was destroyed while flying over Kuwait; her “dutiful husband”; and her son, “freshly-grown / and therefore very much / without need of her // (as if he had ever been).” Castillo also portrays the “Righteous White Boyz,” young, college-educated men whose superficial interest in social justice leads them to objectify women of color—“especially Black girls. / The blacker the better”—but only if these women “remained authentically oppressed”; and the “seminarian,” a self-absorbed businessman paralyzed by religious dogma, “drenched in a sweat of prayers.” Although she gives considerable space to such male characters, they are not as vibrant or complex as Ella and the other women. While the latter challenge and often exceed gendered stereotypes, the former generally do not. A welcome exception is Matías, one of Ella's numerous young lovers, who designs and sews clothes.
Watercolor Women, Opaque Men does not, in itself, offer the transformational vision Castillo aspires to in Massacre of the Dreamers. Still, she offers important clues and expands readers’ appreciation of what constitutes a meaningful “life process” with her celebration of Ella, in her ordinary splendor.
AnaLouise Keating is an associate professor of women's studies at Texas Woman's University. She is the author of Women Reading Women Writing: Self-Invention in Paula Gunn Allen, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde; editor of EntreMundos/Among Worlds: New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa and Anzaldúa's Interviews/Entrevistas; and co-editor of this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation and Perspectives: Gender Studies.