Woman Hollering Creek is a short story by Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros from her 1991 collection of short stories Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. The story reflects the condition of women in the Mexican-American community and revolves around Cleófilas who is the victim of an abusive marriage with Juan. Cleófilas finds an escape through Felice’s help at the end.
Woman Hollering Creek | Summary
Don Serafín can sense very well that the marriage between Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez and her daughter Cleófilas will not last long. He tells his daughter that no matter what, he will never abandon her. However, in the excitement of her marriage, Cleófilas forgets these crucial words. Now she is trapped in a loveless and abusive marriage with Juan. She thinks about her old days in Mexico when there was not much to do but spend one’s days going to the movies or watching one’s favorite TV serials. She has always craved ‘passion’, an adventurous life full of love worthy of the TV serials she used to watch. When she was about to get married, she had many dreams about her new chapter in life. However, those dreams have faded now.
The river running behind their house is called Woman Hollering. She wonders how the river came to be called by this unusual name. She finds no answer from Trini the laundromat. She turns to her neighbors Soledad and Dolores but unfortunately, they do not know about it either. Both Soledad and Dolores are kind women who are grappling with the loss of their loved ones.
Cleófilas does not try to defend herself when Juan hits her for the first time, despite promising herself that she would hit back if a man ever attacked her. Later on, she in fact strokes the dark curls of her repenting husband. She sometimes accompanies her husband to the ice house where the men gather, have their beer, and tell others stories that ‘they want to tell themselves’. Cleófilas sits silently. Cleófilas often wonders how Juan is the man she has ended up with. Juan often complains, among other things, about how the baby’s noises bother him, and how he has to work hard in order to put food inside Cleófilas’s belly. At such moments, Cleófilas has to ‘remind’ herself why she loves him. At this point in the story, the narrator hints at how Cleófilas might be lamenting her choice. She even contemplates going back to her father’s house but backs away thinking how the people there would gossip about her, especially since now she has a child ‘on her hip and one in the oven.’
Cleófilas hears Maximiliano, Juan’s friend, cracking a highly profane and ribald joke about her. She is naturally disgusted but Juan always says that she overreacts to such jokes. But she cannot be so sure about that because crimes against women, inflicted by men, have been on the rise in the place where they live.
There is another fresh assault on Cleófilas; Juan now throws her book at her, bruising her. Cleófilas wonders how her life has become only sadder, just like the TV serials which for some reason have also become sadder and sadder day by day. Cleófilas requests Juan to take her to the doctor’s; she is pregnant with their second child and wants to ensure that the child is alright. Juan tells Cleófilas to hide from the doctors the fact that he physically tortures her, instructing her to come up with excuses that would explain away the bruises on her body. However, when they are at the clinic, a woman named Graciela telephones another woman called Felice and sets up to have Cleófilas escorted out of Juan’s hands. With the help of Graciela, Cleófilas and her son are now all set to flee the abusive domestic cage, riding Felice’s car.
Meeting Felice is a shock to Cleófilas for she has never met a woman like Felice. The latter lets out a scream when they cross Woman Hollering, explaining how the name makes her do it every time she goes across the creek. Felice’s words finally show Cleófilas how the mysterious name of this creek is worth celebrating since no other thing in this place is named after a woman. Felice is a bold woman who utters words women do not. But then again, Felice –self-dependent, charismatic, and confident– is very different from all the women Cleófilas has hitherto met in this place. Soon, Cleófilas ends up joining Felice in her boisterous, free-flowing laughter as they keep moving away from the place.
Woman Hollering Creek | Analysis
This short story, like many other texts written by Sandra Cisnero, deals with the lives of Mexican immigrants in America. The immigration of people from Mexico to America goes very far back in the past, achieving a boost after the 1848 Mexican-American War. America remains the most popular destination for Mexican immigrants. Cisnero, one of the most popular Mexican-American writers, often portrays the conditions of this minority community in her works, while addressing the various problematic aspects that this community harbors within itself. One such aspect is sexism and misogyny, and this is depicted in this short story too.
The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator. The narration makes frequent use of flashbacks. Also, the narration is often quite dramatic at the beginning of several passages, starting by reporting a shocking incident, only to track back and provide exposition some passages later. This technique successfully mimics the shocks Cleófilas herself undergoes at the treatments meted out to her by her abusive husband.
Woman Hollering Creek | Themes
Gender violence and the mistreatment of women are the principal themes in the story. The Mexican-American community in the story becomes a microcosm for the society at large, depicting the disparity in the gender roles, and how women are often victims of domestic abuse, mentally and physically. The abuse is not exclusive to Cleófilas who is the central character of the story. The narrator informs:
‘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.’
Though Cleófilas herself comes from a home with a warm father and brothers, violence seems to come upon women from all sorts of men in the story, and in society. Indeed, ‘Woman Hollering Creek’ depicts toxic masculinity whereby husbands beat women, friends of one’s husband ‘jokes’ about sexually abusing one even as the husband dismisses the insult and threat with a laugh.
The story is also about a love gone wrong. Cleófilas’s idea of love has always been a highly embellished one, with ample inspiration from the TV serials she loves watching. Because of this, the domestic abuses she faces and the general decaying of the love she once had for her husband are particularly tragic. Also, the story is a fine portrayal of how art, mostly popular art catering to a large audience, can often shape one’s ideas about reality, and when one sees how the reality itself is rockier than what one has been led to believe, there is a struggle to come to terms with the now-discovered harshness of reality. The TV serials have convinced Cleófilas so far that ‘to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end.’ However, at the end of the story, Cleófilas has had enough of suffering for the sake of love; she chooses to love herself instead and finds happiness. Cleófilas’s journey from anticipating and then failing to attain a highly idealized and stylized notion of love to understanding the complexities of reality and choosing to walk out of the abuse rather than accept it is effectively brought out in the story.
‘Woman Hollering Creek’, nevertheless, is not a pessimistic or cautionary tale against love per se. It is a tale denouncing only abusive love. Indeed, the stories of Soledad and Doleres are proof of how true love can make one’s life meaningful.
It is clear from the opening passages of the story that Cleófilas is a dreamer, a soul hungry for the lofty passions of life. The torturous marriage with Juan ebbs much of her vivaciousness. However, the story shows in the end, the important part is to never give up on one’s dreams. The dreams and aspirations that many women have but are forced to abandon are perhaps symbolized by the name of the titular river Woman Hollering. This is the only thing in this town named after a woman -already a powerful symbol by virtue of that- and Cleófilas is seen throughout the story yearning to know how this creek got this name. No wonder it is Felice who shows Cleófilas the significance of the name while crossing the creek. This river is perhaps a portal away from a place where women are perpetually abused to a brighter future. The hollering woman symbolized by the river hollers for a positive alternative in the lives of the caged women. This positive alternative is made manifest in the character of Felice. No wonder people of the town itself do not understand or care about the name of the river: ‘a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood’.
The issue of boundary, in many senses of the term, is another subtle thematic focus in the story. The father ruminates in the opening passage of the story how his daughter will be taken ‘on the other side’ of the border. This, of course, is the border between the USA and Mexico. There is also the border between men and women as seen in the story, defined by the differential gender roles allocated to them. Let us see the following passage:
‘Not that [Juan] isn’t a good man. She has to remind herself why she loves him when she changes the baby’s Pampers, or when she mops the bathroom floor, … Or wonder a little when he kicks the refrigerator and says he hates this shitty house and is going out where he won’t be bothered with the baby’s howling and her suspicious questions, and her requests to fix this and this and this because if she had any brains in her head she’d realize he’s been up before the rooster earning his living to pay for the food in her belly and the roof over her head …’.
At another point in the story, Cleófilas thinks about how the ‘towns here are built so that you have to depend on husbands’. This divide between men and women prevents most women from having meaningful relationships with men. In the end, Cleófilas is helped by other women so she can break free from the abuse.
Woman Hollering Creek | Characters
Cleófilas: wife and mother of one, pregnant with her second child. Formerly a woman with lofty expectations about love and romance, Cleófilas is now a victim of domestic abuse. She manages to escape her miserable life in the end, though.
Juan: Cleófilas’s abusive, alcoholic husband. He stands for a particularly repelling kind of masculinity in the story.
Soledad and Dolores: Cleófilas’s kind-hearted neighbors. They both found meaningful love in their lives but lost them, and are now spending their days with that grief.
Felice: a strong-willed, bold, independent woman. She is unlike the other women Cleófilas has ever seen. She injects some of her vivacity into Cleófilas at the end, thereby restoring some of Cleófilas’s former hopefulness.
Woman Hollering Creek | Literary Devices
Foreshadowing is seen at the very beginning of the story when Cleófilas’s father ponders about how Cleófilas will be taken to the other side of the border by Juan. This thought and his parting words to his daughter (’I am your father, I will never abandon you’) are quite foreboding.
The character of Felice is used as a foil to Cleófilas in the story.
Free indirect discourse is widely used in the story in order to bring out the thought process of Cleófilas in some key passages.