Cuchicheos, Gritos y Silencios: Transbordering Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek into México y el Español

Claire Joysmith,

Universidad Nacional Autónoma México


Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Woman Hollering Creek” is a display of multiple bordercrossings, several of which are addressed in this article. From crossing bodies to crossing narratives, I will take a look at intratextual linguistic translation as strategies to indicate cultural markers of chicanidades and their relation to mexicanidades within the context of a migrant woman crossing to and back from the U.S. I also will briefly look into how it crosses/translates into Spanish and for a Spanish-speaking audience living in Mexico, and take a look at how this short story and its main themes bordercross into present day border issues, problematizing existing notions of migrant worker profiles.

Puente 1: Narrative bordercrossings

Set in pre-9/11 times when the Mexico-U.S. border was not as migra-infested and Big Brother camera-eyed as it is today, the narrative in “Woman Hollering Creek” focuses on a migrant Mexicana from northern Mexico who crosses over to Texas: “Seguín. Tejas. A nice sterling ring to it. The tinkle of money” (Cisneros 1991, 51).

This is the same lure that entices millions of unemployed and poverty-stricken Mexicans to cross into the U.S. A crossing that turns into death for some (officially 725 in 2008 and 5,607 over the last 15 years, although at least double that number remain unaccounted for), and arrest for others (officially 427,940 in 2010) in addition to willing return and unwilling deportation, (known as “retornados”) that is rapidly increasing.[1]This has, therefore, become a major political, cultural and trauma-related issue for Mexican citizens.

In this narrative the American Dream turns nightmare for the protagonist, Cleófilas, who faces solitude, alienation, ostracism and domestic abuse that haunt her into what becomes a routine of fear. The latter is suggested through the transits from individual to collective narrative perspectives woven throughout the stories.

The border-line creek emulates the Río Grande or Río Bravo, according to who names it and from what side of the border it is viewed. The creek becomes a simulacrum of “where the Third world grates against the First and bleeds” (Anzaldúa 1987, 3).

In this sense the creek, el arroyo, and the bridge Cleofilas crosses both ways, become “nepantla” sites for the narrative’s multiple bordercrossisngs . Nepantla in Nahuatl, an ancient Mexican language, means “bridge” or “land in-between”, a term Gloria Anzaldúa has reconfigured as in-between spaces that become, as she puts it, the “locus and sign of transition” (Anzaldúa 2005, 99). Both are also the site for the protagonist’s own bordercrossings from her initial arrival as a romantic and naïve bride—“Such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after” [2]— to her crossing on her way back to Mexico as a wiser, although physically abused, pregnant mother, able to let out a “long ribbon of laughter, like water” gurgling from her own throat (Cisneros 1991, 47). Cleofilas thereby traverses from one world to another, from innocence to experience, from migrant worker to “retornada”, from one kind of cuchicheo to another, from one kind of silence to another, as the narrative traces her as a speaking subject in the make. Moreover, for the reader, the narrative becomes in itself a nepantla in-between space that focuses on personal and collective agency for transformation.

The creek’s name in English, Woman Hollering, becomes a colonial historical referent, the locus of historical erasure, particularly as its translation into English denotes, the geopolitical, linguistic and cultural appropriation—by means of the 1848 Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty—that amounted to almost two-thirds of the Mexican territory and its people. Today, according to the Master Narrative, those who cross over “illegally” in a massive reterritorializing exodus are transmuted instantly into “aliens” whose status is “clandestine transnational actors” which in “national security-speak…[is a] term for undocumented migrants, [along with] refugees and asylum seekers, drug and human smugglers, potential terrorists—all those who cross borders and transgress national boundaries without state authorization,” according to Tram Nguyen (XIV). Metaphorically and metonymically, then, the creek-as-border in this narrative becomes a permanent state of flux and fluidity between cultures, territories, legal systems, histories (the accounts of the Alamo are told differently on each side of the border) and languages, all of which are in continuous transcultural translation and transit.

The arroyo La Gritona thereby also becomes a locus of resistance by means of its re-translation into Spanish, even though the original and historical name remains unknown: “The natives only knew the arroyo one crossed on the way to San Antonio, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood. Pues, allá de los indios, quién sabe –who knows, the townspeople shrugged…” (Cisneros 1991, 46).

Whereas the linguistic translation of the creek’s name into Spanish is La Gritona, culturally it is transmuted into la Llorona, and is thereby associated directly with myriad myths surrounding this highly complex figure of Mexican and of now Southern U.S. lore. Once the cultural rather than the linguistic translation becomes available to the protagonist, the creek and la Llorona become entwined and lure her in a very different way to the “tinkle of money” that lured her across to border to Texas. For the creek is “a thing with a voice all its own, all day and all night calling in its high, silver voice. Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman?” (ibid. 51). Instead of the sorrowful, guilty, wailing and screaming mother, however, she is related to the silence of death, the specificity of suicide,[3] abuse and femicide. Cleofilas, in fact, bears domestic abuse in a silence that literally haunts her as la Llorona does

It seemed the newspapers were full of such stories. This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one pushed from a moving car. This one’s cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies. She dunked a glass under the soapy water for a moment -shivered. (ibid. 52)

The protagonist’s bordercrossing into the US becomes, ironically enough, through her own experience, a mere exchange of inhabited geopolitical sites: “The town of gossips [in Mexico]. The town of dust and despair. Which she had traded for this town of gossips [in Texas]. This town of dust, despair….No huddled whisperings on the church steps each Sunday. Because here the whispering begins at sunset at the icehouse instead” (ibid. 50).

“Cuchicheo”—the term used in the Spanish translation of the narrative to mean both whispering and gossip- counterpoints Cleófilas’ own inner world articulated mainly through romantic dreams and memories of the past: “But what Cleofilas has been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion” (ibid. 44). [4]

It is, however, only when Cleófilas crosses the creek and bridge again as a willing “retornada”, in the company of Felice, a Chicana feminist activist who owns a truck of her own, that bordercrossing as a rite of passage takes place. The Llorona-related creek and the bridge are transformed into nepantla in-between spaces that Anzaldúa explains is not only the “locus and sign of transition,” as has been mentioned previously, but also a “psychological, liminal space between the way things had been and an unknown future … [where we] are forced to take up the task of self-redefinition” (Anzaldúa 2005, 99). Thus the rewriting of La Llorona “transshapes” (ibid. 102) the wandering wailing figure into a Chicana “yell as loud as any mariachi” (Cisneros 1991, 55), a “holler like Tarzan” (ibid.), un grito, that signals freedom and, in this narrative in particular, the possibility of self-expression and a new lease on life for Cleofilas, paradoxically enough, by crossing over the border and returning to her hometown in Mexico.

The two Chicanas Felice and Graciela—happy and grace—become bridging agents of potential transformation (binary counterparts to the Mexican women neighbors in Texas, Dolores and Soledad) through orality, but mainly through the counterpart to La Llorona’s wail and death association by means of Felice’s happy grito and Tarzan yell: “Woman Hollering. Pues. I holler.” This functions as a prelude to Cleofilas’ own “long ribbon of laughter, like water”, initiating her to incipient self-narrative practices.

She returns as a willing “retornada” migrant–saved by Chicana activists from a grim future of abuse—without, however, a trace of defeat. Rather, she has acquired a power all her own through experience of new cultural practices that she immediately turns into praxis by recounting the nepantla-site-initiation-crossing to her all-male family of father and brothers . She does so in her own voice marked by an authorial orality she has accessed through the personal experience of a ritual bordercrossing: “Can you imagine, when we crossed the arroyo she just started yelling like a crazy, she would say later to her father and brothers. Just like that. Who would’ve thought?” (ibid. 56)

Puente 2: Bordercrossing and intratextual translation practices

The use of English in Chicana writing can be read as being “subversive,” because, as Norma Klahn states, “Chicanas [have] appropriated the language of the colonized to accuse the long history of oppression and defacement of a language and culture.” In this way it is appropriated as well as problematized and reconfigured from within a linguistic and cultural stronghold such as literature. On the other hand, the very presence of Spanish and the use of interlingual or code-switching practices in Chicana textuality (as opposed to bilingual ones in which both codes appear separately), as Artega has noted, provokes a crisis because “it precludes the status of English as sole, unchallenged code for civilized American discourse” (Arteaga 22). Such identity markers of chicanidad are thereby reminders of a cultural and linguistic specificity of mestizaje that demands acknowledgment.

Interlingual practices are both a tracing of everyday code-switching oral usage, as well as aesthetic practices that Pérez-Torres calls the “mestizaje of linguistic form” (231) and Harryette Mullen refers to as “syncretic aesthetic” (5). The particularities of Chicana poetics, it could be said, then, include what Walter D. Mignolo terms “intentional bilanguaging” (Mignolo 2000). Although these interlingual practices “privilege(s) bilingual, biliterate and bicultural readers, as Norma Klahn points out, they also become markers of chicanidad intrinsic to the very inclusion/exclusion politics of Chicana textuality when it comes to monolingual English- and Spanish-speaking “attentive outside readers,” as Klahn calls them (149). Thereby, self-reflexive translation politics, that I refer to as “intratextual translation strategies,” become identity markers for Chicana textuality.

I have tentatively identified and labeled several of these practices given the absence of available referents. I have used “Woman Hollering Creek” as a specific narrative reference point.

  1. Literal translation from Spanish into English, such as “on the other side” (Cisneros 1991, 43) a literal translation of ‘en el otro lado’ or ‘al otro lado’. Introduced in the first four lines of the narrative, its deliberate “foreignizing” effect is a reminder that the main perspective is that of a Mexican migrant woman and that the narrative location/site is close to the border.
  2. Approximate and contiguous translation, for instance when the narrative voice alludes parenthetically to Cleófilas’ non-violent and loving upbringing, since at home they called her “la consentida, the princess” (ibid. 47-48). “The princess” is a culturally encoded Mexican endearment—princesa or princesita—although the contiguity of both terms has the effect of an approximate cultural translation, for an English-speaking audience, of “la consentida.”
  3. Other strategies are more complex and at times resort to interlingual practices. I have labelled two of them non-contiguous intercallated and differed translations, illustrated in this example: “Don’t go out there after dark, mi’jita, stay near the house. No es bueno para la salud. Mala suerte. Bad luck. Mal aire. You’ll get sick and the baby too. You’ll catch a fright wandering about in the dark….” (ibid. 51) “No es bueno para la salud becomes an approximate translation as “You’ll get sick” a few phrases ahead—and thereby differed—even as it is simultaneously intercalated by other phrases and translations.
  4. Another differed translation would be “Mal aire” and “You’ll catch fright wandering about in the dark,” which is, additionally, an explanatory translation, since the cultural specificities of mal aire become “you’ll catch fright,” to which is added the explanation “wandering about in the dark”.
  5. Mala suerte. Bad luck” is a contiguous parallel translation.
  6. An elliptical or textually unreferenced translation, “The Rich Also Cry,” (46) has been deliberately translated quite literally from the original title “Los ricos también lloran”,a well-known Spanish-language telenovela. Ironically, this becomes a means of privileging the bicultural and bilingual reader by the literal translation itself that proves a giveaway.
  7. “La Llorona, the weeping woman” also becomes a compact explanatory cultural translation.
  8. Although onomatopoeias may at times require translation (such as a barking dog, rendered in English as woof woof and in Spanish as guau guau) Cisneros’ choice to sidestep direct intratextual translation, yet still evoke sensorial effects for the reader in a different language and culture, is a further indication of the importance of intratextual translation possibilities and their range. The use of “rrr, rrr, rr” is related, through contiguity, to a sewing machine within the context of gossipy neighbors talking about Cleofilas’ gift as a seamstress. Another example is the sensorial exegesis added to a simile: “This is what Cleofilas thought evenings when Juan Pedro did not come home, and she lay on her side of the bed listening to the hollow roar of the interstate, a distant dog barking, the pecan trees rustling like ladies in stiff petticoats –shh-shh-shh-, shh-shh, shh— soothing her to sleep” (ibid. 44, my emphasis). The onomatopoeia here enhances the silence and solitude in which the protagonist finds herself immersed in a culture alien to her own.
  9. There are also several instances in “Woman Hollering Creek” of translation resistence that often function as markers of orality denoting specific idiomatic cultural referents, such as: “Entiendes? Pues”(ibid. 46), mìjita” (ibid. 51), mi querida (ibid. 52), híjole (ibid. 54), Qué vida, comadre” (ibid. 55). These oral markers make no concessions to English-only readers, and function, as do other sporadic untranslated terms such as “farmacia”(ibid. 44), telenovela (ibid. 44), tele (ibid. 45), as reminders of the border space as narrative location.

By means of this range of intratextual translation strategies, the tension of languages and cultures becomes textually visible on the page, de-stabilizing a monolingual English language reading, revealing the complexities of Chicano/a transitions, mestizaje, and hybridity, pressing the point that the very reading can become a postcolonial site that requires and even demands the reader’s compliance to engage in active bordercrossing practices (Arteaga 4).

Puente 3: Bordercrossing and translation politics

Once Chicana texts written in English bordercross into a Spanish translation, they begin to “speak”, as it were, in what Arteaga calls “an other tongue” (Arteaga 1994), that is, en o con otra lengua (in or with an other tongue). As soon as Spanish becomes the “dominant” linguistic code, encoded textual signifiers, as well as cultural and identity markers such as the use of interlinguism are dis- and re-located, and consequently subjected to potential erasure and a form of inverted assimilation (Joysmith 2003, 150).

Since poetic and political interlingual practices risk erasure when bordercrossed in a translation into Spanish, in my own translation (Cisneros 1996) I have suggested the possible implementation of certain alternative translation strategies, such as the use of typographical font variations (including italics for what is not translated and remains in English), that may consciously mirror politicized identity-related markers in the terminal text. For example,
would read/look like this in my translated version:

Another translation strategy would be to maintain in the terminal text in Spanish the visibility of rupture and the resistance to linguistic and cultural translation in the text of origin (in English ) as forms of disruption in the “dominant” code being used (Spanish in this case ), through the use of italics. For instance, “Bad luck” quoted above or the oral rendering of a one-sided telephone conversation between two Chicana characters that, as the narrative indicates, was “in a Spanish pocked with English”, becomes a site for “intentional bilanguaging” cultural practices (Mignolo 2000). Since the narrative in “Woman Hollering Creek” is about a Mexicana migrant worker, its translation into Spanish, it might seem, would make this narrative more accessible to readers in Mexico. This may be so linguistically, but culturally it is complicated by several factors. A reader whose geocultural and “situated knowledge” (Haraway 1988) site is, say, central Mexico, and who is unfamiliar with Chicana politics and practices, will almost undoubtedly experience cultural dislocation when reading a narrative depicting a Mexicana migrant worker in translation from English into Spanish. Above all, because “intentional bilanguaging” practices, as has been suggested, are a means of implementing counterhegemonic activities while simultaneously making a claim to mexicanidades, a further dis-location for the Spanish-speaking reader in Mexico.

Moreover, the unsettling ambiguity of chicanidades themselves and their encoded interlingual practices in fact de-stabilize monolithic conceptions of what is labelled as “Mexican” within the boundaries of Mexico as a geocultural site. In this sense, it is worth noting that the alternative translation strategies suggested above maintain these dis-locating features not only as core expressions of chicanidades, but also as a de-stabilizinging agency that may possibly contribute to problematizing, for instance, the inclusion/exclusion politics of mexicanidades themselves and their cartography of cultural complexities from a Mexico-centered perspective.

This would constitute, it should be added, one of the political and cultural motivations I tend to engage with when translating a narrative such as this into Spanish. In this sense, the very act of translation becomes a complex transculturing agency in a broader context of transformative textual and critical cultural practices that problematize the poetics and politics not only of Chicana literature, but also of the cartography of mexicanidades from the “situated knowledge” site of Central Mexico, where “resistant reactions,” (see Joysmith 2001, 2003, 2011a) as I have called them, emerge in academic and public circles. I perceive the latter as highly complex and elusive, emotionally and psychologically rooted reactions, an array of entrenched cultural, nationalist, religious, and linguistic prejudices, possibly even a collective unconscious fear of transgression, entailing deep undercurrents of mistrust, aversion, insecurity toward what is at once strangely alien yet uncannily familiar. The transgressive core of Chicana discourse, imagery and representation also provokes such reactions. This is, however, gradually changing as a result of present intensified (im)migration flows as well as greater awareness of the complexities of migration and globalizing processes.

“Woman Hollering Creek”, it is worth remembering, is not a narrative about a Mexicana migrant worker becoming a Chicana; it is, rather, about how the narrative deploying of Chicana politics may contribute to re-directing cultural practices through varied cultural bordercrossing praxis outside U.S. geopolitical borders. This is, in itself, hugely unsettling and problematic for a Mexican reader.

Nuevos puentes: Post-9/11 migra and narco times

Once Cleofilas has crossed over creek and bridge borders and has undergone her rite of passage thanks to Chicana female role models that initiate her into some form of “liberation”- it would be interesting to enquire as to what her fate would be in the present violent context of the northern Mexico border.

One wonders whether “Woman Hollering Creek” wouldn’t now urgently require a sequel, as in a telenovela become a reality show for real. During a colloquium on Chicana literatura that took place recently in Central Mexico, a participant suggested to Sandra Cisneros (present at the event) that she rewrite this narrative into the contemporary context of excess violence, because, she noted, “Hoy en México nos deslizamos al territorio de los aullidos de dolor y de rabia, donde no hay liberación…dentro de una realidad nacional tan supresora y aniquiladora” (Belausteguigoitia fc.).

Recently, the shocking case of Marisela Escobedo Ortíz,[5] mother of a femicide victim, quien dió un grito, un aullido de Llorona as she demanded justice, but was ultimately killed outside the courthouse December 13th, 2010, raises many questions that remain as yet unanswered.

What if Cleofilas as a migrante retornada, one of thousands today, had to find work in the maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez, now the most violent city on the planet, with a two week contract, and live in a two-by-four room with six other working girls, earning 40 dollars a week, living day in, day out with the threat of becoming one more femicide victim among well over 6,000 in Mexico (2,015 between 2007-2009), without any alternative, without any hope of escape? How would la Llorona be transshaped and reconfigured? What kind of hollering, gritos and cuchicheos would prevail amid the echo of bullets and the silence of hope, when no more “long ribbons of laughter, like water” can be heard on the Mexico-U.S. border? What kind of role-modeling would Chicanas take on? What kind of narratives could they be writing given the present situation? What kind of narratives do Mexicana writers and artists need to shape nowadays?

Perhaps, I might here suggest, it is time for this narrative to be rewritten in post-9/11 and unprecedented narco-violent times.


[1]In 2010 “Mexican nationals accounted for 73 percent of all aliens removed” and “The next leading countries were Guatemala (8 per-cent), Honduras (6 percent) and El Salvador (5 percent). These four countries accounted for 92 percent of all removals.” Immigration Enforcement Actions: 2010. ( back to text

[2]“Pain or rage, Cleófilas wondered when she drove over the bridge the first time as a newlywed and Juan Pedro had pointed it out. La Gritona, he had said, and she had laughed. Such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after.” (47) back to text

[3] “La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it. Wonders if something as quiet as thus drives a woman to the darkness under the trees.” (51) and “There is no place to go….Soledad on one side, Dolores on the other. Or the creek.” (51) back to text

[4]This is a reminder of what Gloria Anzaldúa claims about Chicana writings: “In addition to the task of writing, or perhaps included in the task of writing, we’ve had to create a readership and teach it how to ‘read’ our work” (1990, xviii) back to text

[5]See, back to text

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera. The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute, 1987. Print.

—. “Let Us be the Healing of the Wound: The Coyolxauhqui Imperative –La Sombra y el Sueño.” One Wound for Another/Una herida por otra. Testimonios de Latin@s in the U.S. (11 de septiembre de 2001-11 de marzo de 2002). Ed. Claire Joysmith. México: CISAN. UNAM, The Colorado College and Whittier College, 2005. 92-103. Print.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. “Let Us be the Healing of the Wound: The Coyolxauhqui Imperative –La Sombra y el Sueño.” The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Latin America Otherwise: Languages, Empires, Nations). Ed. AnaLouise Keating. Durham: Duke UP, 2009. 303-317. Print.

Arteaga, Alfred. An Other Tongue: Nation and Ethnicity in the Linguistic Borderlands. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994. Print.

Belausteguigoitia, Marisa. “Sandra Cisneros: La escritura como réplica y grito en Caramelo y ‘El Aullido de la Llorona’.” Nepantla Aesthetics. La espina de nopal en el corazón: Escritura y representación chicanas. Ed. Claire Joysmith. Mexico: UNAM (forthcoming). Print.

Cisneros, Sandra. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1991.

—. “El arroyo de la Llorona.” El arroyo de la Llorona y otros cuentos. translation by Liliana Valenzuela. New York: Vintage Español/ Vintage Books, Random House, 1996: 47-61. Print.

—. “El arroyo de la Gritona.” in Joysmith, Claire. “La literatura bífida.” Revista Mexicana de Cultura. 39 (October 1996). Print.

Haraway, Donna. “Situated Knowledges.” Feminist Studies. 14.3 (Autumn 1988): 585. Print.

Klahn, Norma. “Literary (Re)Mappings: Autobiographical (Dis)Placements by Chicana Writers.” Chicana Feminisms: A Critical Reader (Post-Contemporary Interventions). Ed. Gabriela F. Arredondo et al. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003. 114 -145. Print.

Nguyen, Tram. We are all Suspects Now. Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities after 9/11. Boston: Beacon Press, 2005. Print.

Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories / Global Designs. Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000. Print.

Mullen, Harryette. “‘A Silence Between Us Like a Language’: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek.” Melus. The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethinic Literature of the U.S. 21.2 (Summer 1996): 3-20. Print.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. Movements in Chicano Poetry. Against Myths, Against Margins. Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

Sánchez, Marta E. Contemporary Chicana Poetry: A Critical Approach to An Emerging Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985. Print.