Chencha prepares Nacha’s recipe for ox-tail soup, and makes the dangerous journey across occupied territories to bring it to Tita. The two women cry in each other’s arms, creating a stream that flows through John’s house. They eat, laughing and reliving old memories, and Tita feels Nacha’s presence. John notices that the soup revives Tita fully, more than any of his American cook’s food or his own remedies. Chencha brings Tita a letter from Gertrudis, who writes that although her captain revived her spirit, she is now working in a brothel because he alone couldn’t “quench the fire” inside her. Chencha explains that Mama Elena has forbidden any mention of Tita’s name, and Tita asks Chencha to relay to Mama Elena that she will never return.
The food John gives Tita is prepared by a stranger, and this can’t rival the magic of food prepared by a loved one or connected to one’s own memories and emotions. The soup holds all the emotions of Chencha’s friendship and Nacha’s love, so powerfully that the experience of eating the soup brings back Nacha’s ghost. Gertrudis’ letter implies that she is on a journey to fill something inside herself that goes beyond the love of one man. Gertrudis doesn’t associate her prostitution with desperation or objectification, but sees it as an act of agency.
After Chencha leaves, John takes Tita to an elegant party, where he unofficially proposes marriage to her. Tita thinks that John has rekindled her inner fire, and she hopes that the pleasure she takes from his company will eventually grow into love. Still, she waits to accept. Meanwhile on her journey home, Chencha tries to think of a lie to explain to Mama Elena why she visited Tita, so she can pass along Tita’s message without incurring her anger. Chencha crafts the lie that Tita escaped the asylum and now wanders the streets as a beggar repenting of her disrespect to Mama Elena, sure that this story will please her. But Chencha never gets to tell the lie.
John has started to light Tita’s inner “matchbox,” but on some level Tita knows she doesn’t love him fully. The instant love she felt for Pedro must serve as her reference point, forcing her to ask herself whether love can also be cultivated. The lie Chencha prepares highlights the sad truth that Mama Elena would rather hear that her daughter is in danger and suffering than to know that her daughter is happier without her.
When Chencha arrives home, a group of bandits attack the ranch. They violently rape Chencha and when Mama Elena tries to stop them, they knock her unconscious. Mama Elena becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Afterwards Tita’s conscience moves her to come home and take care of Mama Elena, with plans to leave once she gets better. Mama Elena suspects that Dr. Brown and Tita are in a relationship. Tita’s cooking tastes bitter to Mama Elena, who believes Tita is poisoning her. Tita feels the effects of Mama Elena’s continued cruelty, and wonders how anyone could be so wicked even when cared for so lovingly. Tita plans to marry John, on whom she relies to continue to “rekindle her spirit.”
The sudden, brutal events in this scene reflect the instability of the time. During the war, violence occurs without warning, forever altering the course of individual’s lives. Mama Elena’s protectiveness again allows her a rare moment of self-sacrifice. Powers shift, and Mama Elena is now at the mercy of Tita. Mama Elena may suspect Tita of poisoning because she knows she has earned Tita’s anger—or it may be that Tita’s ability to infuse her cooking with her emotions causes her resentment to affect the flavor of her food.
Following the rape, Chencha goes into a deep depression, believing that no man will marry her now. Tita tries to comfort her, but she knows that Mama Elena’s cruelty is worsening Chencha’s condition. To give Chencha a new start, Tita lets Chencha find work elsewhere. John provides Tita immense comfort during this time, and she begins to wonder if what she feels for him is true love. Since Mama Elena refuses to eat food served by Tita, Tita hires a series of cooks to do the job. They all leave, though, driven away by Mama Elena’s cruelty. Mama Elena settles on a ritual of milk and ipecac (a drug used to induce vomiting), which she keeps hidden, to rid her body of the poison she is convinced Tita is feeding her. Mama Elena dies suddenly from overdosing on the ipecac.
Conservative views picture women as commodities that are damaged when “used” by other men. Tita can’t free Chencha from misogynistic views toward women’s sexuality, but she can give her a space to process her trauma away from Mama Elena. In a gesture of poetic irony, Mama Elena dies of her own self-administered poison while trying to escape imagined poison from Tita. Mama Elena’s death is literally caused by her refusal to believe in other people and her refusal to see the danger of her own actions.
While dressing Mama Elena for her wake, Tita feels no sadness, having never known her mother beyond her “outer leaves” or had any meaningful communication with her. Using the keys her mother wore all her life, Tita unlocks a box she knows her mother kept hidden away in one of the closets. There, she finds letters from a man named José Treviño. She discovers that Treviño was the illicit son of a local man and a black woman whose family had escaped slavery in the United States. Mama Elena was in love with him, but her parents forbade her union with a “mulatto” and instead married her off to Juan de La Garza. They continued their affair in secret through the years, and Treviño was the true father of Gertrudis. Juan de La Garza’s heart attack after Tita’s birth was in fact caused by his discovery of Mama Elena’s affair.
The title of “mother” doesn’t mean much to Tita, who connects with people through shared emotional experiences, and not necessarily through blood. Tita’s lack of grief isn’t just because of her resentment, but also because she sees Mama Elena as a stranger. By unlocking the secret box, Tita betrays her desire to know her mother more deeply as a human being. The story of Treviño adds to the novel’s depiction of racial oppression and prejudice in Mexico. Mama Elena’s conservative values contrast completely with her love affair, which defied both the sanctity of her marriage and the racial hierarchy of her time.
At Mama Elena’s funeral, Tita finally cries, “not for the castrating mother who had repressed Tita her entire life, but for the person who had lived a frustrated love.” Tita vows on her mother’s grave never to forsake true love, which she believes she feels for John Brown. At that moment, Tita is surprised to see Pedro and a fully pregnant Rosaura approaching from a distance. Rosaura hugs Tita, crying profusely. Pedro hugs her too, and his body shakes. Tita feels angry with him for abandoning her, and feels that he doesn’t merit her love. She walks away arm in arm with John, hoping Pedro feels stung. Pedro watches in disbelief, determined to win Tita back, particularly now that Mama Elena isn’t there to stop them.
To know someone’s inner self is to know their secrets and sins, and more than anything, to know about what and who they loved. Rather than judging her mother as a hypocrite for hiding her own adulterous relationship, Tita now empathizes with her mother’s experience of lost love. Through Tita’s eyes, Mama Elena’s character becomes a little more human and finds a tiny token of redemption. The timing of Tita’s discovery about Mama Elena and Pedro’s return forces Tita to seriously question whether her love for John is “true.”