In a voice rarely heard, 38 women speak for Mexico’s silent generation

Times Staff Writer

In the so-called developed Western world, every generation of women seems to get the book it deserves, or demands, whether it’s “A Room of One’s Own,” “The Second Sex,” “The Female Eunuch,” “The Bell Jar,” “Fear of Flying,” “Sex in the City” or, heaven help us, “Menopause for Dummies.”

But in Mexico, things haven’t exactly worked that way. Forty years after Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” sparked a massive consciousness-raising movement among American women and helped launch a publishing sub-industry, many Mexican women are awaiting their feminist ur text.

In this socially conservative, profoundly Roman Catholic country, where abortion is illegal, women didn’t gain the right to vote until 1953, and it’s still perfectly OK for employers to run secretarial help-wanted ads seeking an “attractive” 25-year-old, the primary mass-culture venues for exploring women’s inner lives are the lurid, cliche-besotted Cinderella stories of the telenovelas (soap operas) that saturate prime-time TV.


When Mexico’s female intelligentsia talks about home-grown feminist role models, they usually cite Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, the brilliant nun who challenged the patriarchy when she wasn’t busy penning erotic poetry. Unfortunately, Sor Juana passed away in 1695.

So it was understandable that when the Mexican division of Random House published “Gritos y Susurros” (Cries and Whispers), a collection of witty, well-written and unusually candid first-person essays by 38 Mexican women last July, its initial print run was an unassuming 10,000 copies.

Cutting a swath through an array of topics -- sexual betrayal, macho men, creeping mortality, the joys and frustrations of single parenthood and the harrowing challenges of middle age -- the book, which has become a surprise bestseller and a budding pop-culture phenomenon of sorts, paints an intimate, painful and at times painfully humorous mosaic of modern Mexican womanhood.

Several essays deal with deadly serious subjects. Journalist Rossana Fuentes-Berain writes about the dismissive, machista attitude of the male editors at a Mexico City daily newspaper when she began to investigate the murders of scores of women in the border city of Ciudad Juarez. One or two entries have set jaws flapping in the capital’s higher circles, such as Guadalupe Loaeza’s red-faced remembrance of a midnight screaming match she had with “the other woman” while her two-timing beau stood by.

Among the most revelatory essays is that of Marta Lamas, one of Mexico’s leading feminist scholars, who also runs a pro-choice advocacy group here. In her essay, titled “My Breach,” she writes about having had a passionate affair some years ago with an unnamed married man, a member of Mexico’s judicial forces, whose social status and conservative views were diametrically opposed to her own. For Mexicans, it was as if Gloria Steinem had admitted to having an affair with Newt Gingrich.

Six months and an additional 25,000 copies later, “Gritos y Susurros” is in its sixth printing and will go on sale in Spanish this month in the Los Angeles area and other U.S. markets.


Perhaps more significantly, Mexico’s largest television network, Televisa, recently finished shooting an adaptation of the book that will air on Mexican television in January and also will be broadcast on Univision, the Spanish-language U.S. network -- a virtually unprecedented effort on behalf of a book about Mexican women with no pop diva or supermodel’s name attached.

Meanwhile, the Mexican media have lavished attention on “Gritos y Susurros.” “Delightful and touching” was the verdict of radio commentator Ricardo Rocha. Glossy women’s magazines have devoted lengthy, full-color spreads to the book and its contributors, while a few male writers have reacted with respectful but puzzled essays of the “what-do-women-want?” variety.

Localized editions of the book already are in the works for other Latin American countries, and a planned English-language U.S. version will feature prominent Latina Americans.

While marketers haven’t determined exactly who’s buying and reading the book, letters and e-mails of thanks have been pouring in from both men and women, some offering their own intimate tales of personal crusades, life-altering experiences and/or thoughts on the state of male-female relations in Mexico.

“Suddenly I’m like this political Ann Landers, which is a role I’d never envisioned for myself,” says Denise Dresser, 41, the Mexican-born, Princeton-educated political scientist who arm-twisted the project into being. Dresser admits that even she has been slightly “bewildered” by the reaction to a project that began for her partly as a way to meet other interesting, accomplished women.

“I think people are sort of stunned,” she says. “It’s pushing back the boundaries of what’s permissible to say as a woman in Mexico.”

Dresser’s who’s who

While few contributors to “Gritos y Susurros” are household names north of, say, Galveston, Texas, many are well known in Mexico and across the Latin world. They include Elena Poniatowska, a journalist-novelist and gray eminence of Mexican letters; Laura Esquivel, author and screenwriter, whose adaptation of her 1992 magic-realist novel, “Like Water for Chocolate,” is one of the highest-grossing films in Latin movie history; and veteran actress Patricia Reyes Spindola, who played Salma Hayek’s mother in “Frida.” Among the other contributors are artists, academics, political activists, a dramaturge, a scientist, a restaurateur, a singer and a supreme court minister.

What all have in common, according to Dresser, is that they mainly “are known for their professional profile,” their outward success, while their personal lives have been tightly guarded. “The criteria for selection was very random, arbitrary, personal,” says Dresser, who is known for her hard-hitting newspaper columns criticizing Mexico’s corrupt politics and wasteful economic status quo, and who occasionally contributes opinion pieces to The Times’ Op-Ed page. “It was women that for me are an enigma, mysterious, complex, they have been the subject of scandal, or that I have wanted to meet.”

The idealized woman is nowhere to be seen. “Here are women admitting they are dyslexic, they are insecure, they were only trying to please their mothers, they were beaten by their fathers, they were cheated on by their lovers,” says Dresser. “These are women as far from Sor Juana as you can get, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Asked whether “Gritos y Susurros” is a feminist book, Dresser says she has “gone to great lengths” in interviews to avoid the term. “In this country, feminism has a bad name, a bad reputation,” she says. “But I think the book is very feminist in the original definition of empowering women, giving them their own voice.”

Three questions

Subtitled “Untimely Experiences of 38 Women,” “Gritos y Susurros” takes its name from Ingmar Bergman’s exquisitely observed, angst-ridden 1972 film about three sisters in turn-of-the-century Norway.

Dresser posed three questions to her contributors: What has taken you by surprise in life? In what moments and under what circumstances have you felt under-prepared? And what has constituted an unusual and disquieting challenge for you?

Mexico isn’t a prudish society, but it is a very private one. Family, political and religious loyalties run deep, and it’s considered bad form, if not suicidal, to tattle on one’s colleagues or “betray” one’s own class interests. Women too have played their assigned roles in what Dresser calls Mexico’s “culture of complicity, of secrecy.”

“Mexico in this regard is more like France. There are very tall boundaries between the public and the private,” she says. In such a society, many of the women who contributed to “Gritos y Susurros” had felt for years “that expressing any kind of weakness or failure would make them vulnerable,” Dresser says.

But when she began receiving the essays, Dresser was “astounded” at how far some of the women had been willing to go in breaking the privacy taboo. Politician Rosario Robles writes about having to make a decision to use force against student demonstrators while serving as head of Mexico City’s government. Julieta Fierro, a leading astronomer, recounts that after her mother’s death, her father wanted her to stay home and look after her brothers and how instead she channeled her energy into science; her latest side-project is a book titled “El Manual de la Amante Perfecta” (The Manual of the Perfect Lover).

Reyes Spindola describes how she would mark and re-mark her movie scripts to cope with her closeted dyslexia, until the pages looked “like a game of snakes and ladders,” and about her insecurity over having to perform a nude scene with a much younger male actor.

“Many women have talked to me about their texts as being cathartic, as if they were waiting to exhale and then did so, about [exorcising] demons, about carrying around that story for a long time,” Dresser says. “And then for some women, like Julieta Fierro, I felt like the attitude was, ‘To hell with it.’ ”

Dresser acknowledges that for some the book may hold a certain “morbid curiosity,” an element of schadenfreude expressed in the old Spanish proverb that “Los ricos tambien lloran” -- “The rich ones also cry.” Yet “Gritos y Susurros” rarely, if ever, strays into the type of self-aggrandizing, gimme-the-gory-details writing that pervades American pop culture.

A characteristically Mexican sense of decorum clings to these essays, along with a between-the-lines conviction that each woman’s individual struggle belongs to a broader crusade for equality and opportunity shared by all Mexican women.

“This is not a book about women complaining,” Dresser says. “There’s very little in this book that is self-absorbed, because these women are still fighting to make Mexico a better country.”

The polite approach

Despite its provocative overall perspective, “Gritos y Susurros” feels more disarming than confrontational. Even the descriptions of romantic escapades aren’t unsuitable for a PG-13 audience. And the book’s lyrical title and genteel cover design, featuring black-and-white group shots of the contributors tastefully attired in black and seated on chairs and chaises, are in sharp contrast to the style of many U.S. second-wave feminist books, whose arch, in-your-face titles alone -- “The Bitch in the House,” “Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It” -- would seem out of place in Mexican polite society.

From a U.S. reader’s viewpoint, “Gritos y Susurros” also may be notable for the absence of essays lamenting the burdens of trying to be a supermom or about the teeth-grinding fact that even “liberated” hubbies and enlightened boyfriends have to be nagged to take out the garbage or pitch in with diaper-changing duties.

For many years, Mexican feminism has been able to sidestep those issues because most middle- and upper-class Mexican women could afford to have live-in domestic help, says Lamas, the feminist scholar.

“That’s the reason that in Mexico we haven’t had a feminist movement like the one you had in the States,” she says. Even among educated, progressive women, the easy availability of cheap domestic help worked as a “buffer” against establishing a more unified women’s movement embracing many segments of society. In the 1960s and ‘70s, not enough of these affluent women saw a need to change the system in order to better their own lives, Lamas says.

“We didn’t have confrontation with our husbands or with the men who live with us because there was another woman” -- the maid or the cook -- “who was doing that thing.” However, Lamas says, this has begun to change because few working couples today can afford live-in help.

Poniatowska says there is still “an abyss” dividing middle- and upper-class Mexican women from the much larger population of poor working-class women, particularly Indian peasants inhabiting Mexico’s rural towns and villages. “Mexico is a very hierarchical society,” she says. “Peasant women do not have the same needs or necessities as university women or women who work. Their issues are not the same.”

Mexican feminism, according to Poniatowska, has been “mostly a university movement, or a movement of women of high social classes, or at least middle and high social classes.”

But Dresser points out that while the women of “Gritos y Susurros” may be successful, “they did not come from privileged homes, they were not given anything.” In that sense, she believes, they represent a new set of possibilities for Mexican society as a whole, which after centuries of foreign occupations, revolutions and 70 years of rigid, one-party rule is still struggling to make itself into a real democracy.

Maybe, she suggests, the women of “Gritos y Susurros” can set an example for men of how to be more open and honest in all their dealings.

“Now we’re beginning to open up and unpack Mexico, not only in terms of how politicians spend money,” Dresser says. “I don’t think this book could’ve been written four or four five years ago. I think the end of official censorship has also meant the end of private censorship.”


‘Gritos y Susurros’

Denise Dresser will be reading and signing the book as well as showing a related video in Santa Ana this week.

Where: Libreria Martinez, 1110 N. Main St., Santa Ana

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Price: Free

Contact: Call (714) 973-7900