The main relationship explored in The Mixquiahuala Letters is the enduring friendship between Teresa and Alicia, a friendship that is made by “allegiance in good faith/passion bound/by uterine comprehension. In sisterhood. In solidarity” (Castillo, 1992: p. 24). While this relationship is clearly the focus of the novel, many other relationships
are explored in this context, with letters written to Alicia from Teresa serving as the frame through which the reader is let into their worlds.
Teresa and Alicia meet when they end up living in the same boarding house in Mexico City, taking a summer course at an institution to study the language and culture of Mexico. Teresa, a Chicana, feels misplaced among many blond Americans and further disappointed that everyone there seems only interested in “undergo[ing] an existential summer of exotic experiences” (ibid). Somehow the two become friends, though the exact reasons are not made extremely clear to the reader. What is made clear, however, is that their relationship is a stormy and intense one: “we needled, stabbed, manipulated, cut, and through it all we loved, driven to see the other improved in her own reflection” (p. 29).
Through the course of the letters, it is revealed that many times when Teresa and Alicia have parted ways, it has been because of a man. This is undoubtedly Castillo’s social commentary on relationships among men and women – that the women’s friendship has, in a sense, been intruded on and threatened by the presence of men, and furthermore, that the women always seem to choose the men in the short term but ultimately have only each other to count on.
From the first letter, we know that Teresa is part of an unhappy marriage that is essentially over but lacking the finality of divorce. When she escapes to Mexico City for six weeks, there is a sense that her husband resents it but may hope that afterwards, she will return happier for the distance. This is not the case, however, and he actually shows up to take her home, while Teresa finds herself “no longer prepared to face a mundane life of need and resentment, accept monogamous commitments and honor patriarchal traditions, and wanted to be rid of the husband’s guiding hand” (p. 28).
As a reader, I find myself lacking sympathy for Teresa in this instance, because no matter that her family and their religion (which letter four reveals that she has rejected) condemn divorce, it seems that divorce is essential in this situation. I find it a huge character flaw that Teresa lacks the courage to get a divorce and put this situation behind her instead of allowing herself to be weighed down by a husband she neither wants nor needs.
A series of betrayals by men haunts Teresa and Alicia’s friendship. Alicia returns to the United States after finding out her lover in Acapulco had a wife and children she was unaware of. “Faraway from the ocean, scorpions’ stings, and lying lovers, [Alicia] drank a special tea to induce [her] menstrual flow” (p. 33) while staying with Teresa in Chicago. Teresa, apparently for no reason other than obligation and her family’s disdain, soon ends up following her husband to California, where he had moved without her. After he makes some bad business decisions, Teresa packs up and leaves him again. But still, Teresa writes to Alicia, “we weren’t free of society’s tenets to be convinced we could exist indefinitely without the demands or complications one aggregated with the supreme commitment to a man” (p. 45).
I wonder if the letters left unsigned by Teresa are ever sent to Alicia. The first unsigned letter appears on page forty-nine and by the end of the poem/letter, it becomes extremely uncomplimentary to Alicia. Teresa writes “you were flat-chested, not especially pretty and/bore no resemblance to the ideal of any man/ you encountered anywhere” (p. 50). In a complete stroke of hypocrisy, the next letter states “i wish i could have convinced you how beautiful you are, then perhaps you might not’ve gone through so much personal agony during that second journey to Mexico” (p. 51) and then goes on to list an “inventory” (ibid.) of Alicia’s beauty. This letter remains unsigned, also, as does the next, which reveals when the women decide to take another trip to Mexico. The purpose of leaving these letters unsigned evades me, though it seems there must be some ultimate reason that I am missing.
This trip to Mexico seems entirely laden with men that Teresa and Alicia meet. In letter eighteen, Teresa recounts the story of a shabby man they met at the Zapotec ruins and how he had unexpectedly turned his attention away from Alicia to her. Alicia’s feeling are hurt by this, and though I don’t understand why she particularly cared, Teresa says she understood even though she denied it at the time. For some reason, Teresa lets the man cut a lock of her hair before they leave. This serves to foreshadow the man’s return later in the book.
A man Teresa barely seems to know proposes marriage to her soon there after. She finally tells him that she is already married but despite the disappointment that Sergio feels, he says he will help get her a divorce and “[they] would be married immediately afterwards” (p. 67). Teresa writes that “[she] never loved Sergio Samora. . . what did love have to do with the order of things?” (p. 68). The women continue on with their travels once Teresa has promised to return to Sergio.
One must wonder, while reading this novel, why Teresa and Alicia seem almost never to meet women, and why they seem to care little to know them when they do. Do the men only speak to them because they think they can seduce them? Do the women shy away from them because they are foreigners? Do Teresa and Alicia dismiss the women they meet simply because they are not men? I am left after reading The Mixquiahuala Letters with all these questions and not so many answers. I am irritated with the characters, though, because they seem to take each other’s presence for granted and waste a lot of time being unhappy at the hands of whatever sleazy men they’re associating with.
I suppose if they did not do this, there would be no novel, but the sheer number of strange and/or dangerous encounters Teresa and Alicia find themselves in the middle of is more than a little overwhelming and perhaps even heavy handed on Castillo’s part. Teresa claims that their “antennae went up and zoomed in on every move, each phase to decipher whether foul play might be in store. This above all else, having to remain on guard because we were women travelers, persons with sparse funds and resources to count on certain conveniences and comforts, was draining” (p. 77), but writing this in a letter does not mean it is necessarily true and the multitude of troubles they nearly find themselves in makes it seem as though they are barely careful.
It is true that the world is a lot more dangerous when you are a woman and Castillo makes this point very effectively. Next the reader learns of Alicia’s near rape when Teresa writes: “it happened quickly. They were anxious to have you, chew you up, one would have the legs, the other a breast. . . another stupid gringa, foreign scum. It happened quickly. One grabbed your arm, the other pulled at your waist to drag you backstage. Without knowing I would do it, I flung at them. LEAVE HER BE! SON OF A BITCH!” (p. 84). Teresa manages to save Alicia from rape and possible murder, but it is not until the two are confronted by a spirit that they decide to leave that city, and then not until Sergio telegrams Teresa to say he can’t marry her do they leave the country.
Back in the United States, Teresa finds herself a new lover, Alexis Valladolid, Alicia’s cousin. Again, Castillo continues to write very little that does not directly pertain to men and their effect on women: “we licked our wounds with the undersides of penises and applied semen to to our tender bellies and breasts like Tiger’s Balm” (p. 106). While Teresa stays at Alicia’s apartment with Alexis, she discovers that the man they met at the ruins has sent Alicia a letter with his picture and asked that it be given to Teresa. The picture makes her sick when she takes hold of it, and while she is sleeping, Alexis burns it. It seems this is some kind of curse, but what it really adds to the story is unclear to me.
Teresa brings Alexis home with her to Chicago and writes that “his embraces were poison. His passion always painful” (p. 110). Alicia moves in with Abdel, a Viet Nam veteran who has recently been divorced by his wife. There is a sense from the beginning that both of these relationships are doomed and indeed, in the next letter, Teresa writes to tell Alicia that she has aborted Alexis’s child, partially because “i wanted to be rid of [Alexis] like a cancerous tumor. What would i have done with his child?” (p. 116).
I wish the letters were dated so that I could better understand the passage of time in this novel. The reader finds out that Teresa has now had a son by her husband, but does not know how long it has been since her break up with Alexis. I think letter thirty-six takes us to the past, before Teresa’s baby was born. Teresa describes her next visit with Alicia as bleak; “[she] had driven sixteen and a half hours just to ask [Alicia] to dance with [her] – but what [she] found was the carrion of what vultures in Mexico had discarded” (p. 128). She writes that Abdel “was like a mean draft to one in the last phases of pneumonia” (p. 129). In the final letter of the novel, Abdel has killed himself; Teresa speculates that this has been to teach Alicia a lesson, though she “[doesn’t] know why he hated [Alicia] so or loved himself so little that he could have left [her] with a self-portrait of such macabre perversity” (p. 137).
The novel lacks much of a resolution. It is clear that Teresa and Alicia are finally rid of parasitic men in their lives, but at what cost? The only thing I feel certain of as a reader is that the two women can likely count on each other, despite whatever else may come.